NRL referees face scrutiny after night of bad calls

What started with a questionable call on a try to the Bulldogs ended with a match-deciding penalty in a dour clash between the Broncos and the Tigers.

Picture credit: Bluebudgie

2018 hasn’t been a vintage year for referee performances in the NRL. There have been a number of controversial decisions made over the first two-and-a-half weeks of the competition. Coupled with a surge in penalties based on a crackdown on offside and play-the-ball penalties and you’re left with a frustrated viewing public.

Personally, I don’t mind the slew of penalties blown for cheap, easy penalties that were perhaps let go in the past. At the end of the day, teams will do anything and everything in their power to get an edge and if that means a quick play-the-ball that isn’t up to scratch or sneaking a yard or two or five in front of the referee when you’re under the pump defensively, I don’t mind this being targeted in an attempt to clean up the game and, ultimately, provide a more open and expansive game once teams get their head around it.

Clearly, though, mine is not an opinion shared by all. That’s fine. Rugby league is, at its very heart, the sort of game that divides opinion and feeds off an intense tribalism. We’ll agree to disagree on whether or not the crackdown by the whistleblowers is fair dinkum, or it has gone too far.

Whistleblowers under the pump

What cannot be denied, however, is the intense wave of criticism that referees have received so far and how quickly that has intensified on the back of two questionable decisions across a pair of Friday night games in round three.

While the night ended with a match-deciding penalty awarded to the Broncos in golden point against the Tigers, the decision making of officials was under the pump far earlier in the evening when the Bulldogs were awarded a controversial try in their 20-18 win over the Penrith Panthers.

At the time, the game was barely minutes old. The Bulldogs crossed the stripe courtesy of in-form fullback Moses Mbye and looked to have banked the perfect start against the slow-out-of-the-blocks Panthers.

The final decision on the four-pointer was referred upstairs over concerns of a possible obstruction in the buildup. Genuine footy fans everywhere hung their heads. Nothing in this game of ours is more of a fifty-fifty toss-up than video referee decisions on the obstruction rule.

As the play unfolded, Bulldogs halfback Kieran Foran ran a tidy second-man play around 10m out from the Penrith try line with a pair of decoy runners operating off his shoulder. The pass found a home in the hands of Jeremy Marshall-King out the back who would send it on to Mbye, who put together a blinder of a performance on the night and crossed the try line. 

Video referee ruling? Toss a coin

The problem with the play came when one of the decoy runners, centre Will Hopoate caught the outside shoulder of defender James Maloney. The Penrith five-eighth would go on to have a slight chance at tackling Mbye but was clearly impeded in his efforts on the defensive line despite staying on his feet and making an attempted tackle.

Whether or not Maloney would have had sufficient ability to stop Mbye became irrelevant the moment the video referee advised the waiting world that there had been "minimal contact" on Maloney and that everything there could be considered play on.

In the commentary box, only Balmain Tigers legend Steve 'Blocker' Roach was content with the decision. Lead play-by-play man Warren Smith went as far as to suggest that game had switched to becoming American Gridiron.

“It’s now the National Football League," he said, referring to the NFL.

"You can send men through and contact defenders to deny them a full chance to make a tackle and that’s OK suddenly."

It's hard to argue with Smith's assessment. As things stood, the game was only minutes old and there was plenty left to be decided between the two and, if I'm honest, the Bulldogs were the better side on the night but Penrith fans can feel genuinely aggrieved that such an important early decision seems to have not only gone against them but have been made contrary to previous decisions of the same mould.

The problem here, more than anything, is consistency in rulings from one minute to the next. When decisions for obstruction are sent upstairs, it is starting to feel like a dartboard and some darts are part of the decision making process.

Another shocker

Later in the evening, at a picturesque and atmospheric Campbelltown Stadium, we would be thrown another giant curve ball by the man in the middle.

Brad Fittler called it a "poor penalty," while Andrew Johns suggested it felt like referees had no "feel for the game."

Call it what you will, but plenty of footy fans walked away from last night's second game feeling like the referee, the man charged with trying to keep things in check and deliver a platform for the players to provide a spectacle, had decided the outcome of the game.

With scores locked at 7-7 and the minutes dwindling away in golden point on a fairly average game of football, the Broncos looked to have butchered a late chance to win the game when Jamayne Isaako missed a shot at field goal. It would have been his second for the night after slotting one to send his side 7-6 up earlier in the evening.

Cue bedlam. As everyone recovered from the missed attempt, the whistle blew and referee Ashley Klein handed the Broncos a golden opportunity to seal a dramatic win on the road.

Klein ruled that the Tigers defenders were offside at marker. That decision launched a wave of scathing criticism given neither marker got anywhere near impacting Isaako's attempted field goal whatsoever.

Quite rightly, many felt this was an unfair end to a gripping, low-scoring contest.

A sad end to Friday night 

Long-time Channel Nine talking head Phil Gould was perhaps the most passionate post-game, unleashing a damning assessment of the situation.

“I watched really closely from the time the game got to 6-6,” Gould said. 

“We’d had a lot of penalties and I wanted to see how many penalties weren’t going to be given in the next little period.

“They could have given a penalty at any time on any play the ball in the last seven or eight minutes... you could have picked up a dozen penalties yet we pick one then and there.

“To have a finish like that disappoints me about our game.”

What are your thoughts on Friday's two controversial decisions? Let us know in the comments below.

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Daniel Lang


Rugby League & Cricket editor at RealSport.

Daniel is a passionate advocate for the game of rugby league and the development of the sport across the world and, as such, writes with a zeal and determination to spread the gospel of the game.

A huge fan of cricket, football, NFL, Tennis and Supercar racing in Australia, Daniel can quickly find himself a casual fan of just about any sport after putting his mind to watching it.

Daniel is also one-half of the hugely successful podcast 'Panthers Weekly with Strawbs & Teach' where he talks all things Panthers Weekly while he also hosts the current affairs show 'the Strawbs Show' and the 'Summer of Cricket with Strawbs & Shnuu' as well as appearing on the Sydney FC covering 'Nothing But Blue Skies' podcast occasionally.