NRL Bunker: Is it time for change?

Technology has improved many things in our daily lives. The advent of the smart phone and WiFi are certainly two things that immediately come to mind as creations that make our lives simpler, more efficient and enable answers and access right at our finger tips.

When it comes to sport, in cricket we have seen the advent of the wide cricket bat, 20/20 cricket, drop-in pitches and stump cam which have all increased the spectacle for the crowds and has seen popularity increase. One of the things that still causes concern is the DRS. The way in which the questioning of the umpire decisions is conducted is leaving an indelible blight on the game and removes the gentlemanly nature of cricket, ie respect.

Rugby League is having similar issues with the video referee and the bunker. Despite a huge investment by the NRL in technology and unprecedented camera angles, there is still much controversy and errors are still occurring. The competition is so tight that one single penalty for a strip the ball which was in-fact a loose carry can be the difference between winning and losing, such is the value of momentum in today’s NRL.

How do we ensure every decision is correct? Do we even need to or do we need to accept that human error is just that and something that needs to be factored in? In the same way that a player will drop a pass or a goal-kicker miss a crucial conversion, a referee may just miss a knock on or award a try where the separation was dubious at best. Is this strive for 100% accuracy crippling the game? Do fans really want perfection or are fans comfortable with a certain level of error. Is it the media who often exacerbate the decision. The banter around the water cooler in the office demands some form of controversy or one-eyed thought process to survive. What else will we talk about on Mondays?

With the myriad of sports betting agencies and the sheer volume of hard-earned cash being outlayed on NRL then surely there is a responsibility to these punters for accuracy. An incorrect penalty for a team and a lost 2 points can have consequences for the momentum of the game, for and against or the critical 2 points on the table, but what about for the punter? Does the punter have to accept that they missed the last leg of a multi and thousands of dollars because the referee is human or do they have a right to protest and argue the error cost them? How would this ever stack up in a court of law if that was ever challenged?

How do we ensure that the decisions are correct in the highest percentage of times? The captain’s challenge has been mentioned before and the concept does have some merit but a limit on the number of challenges and then penalties for incorrect questioning also leaves little satisfaction at the end of the day. What we do need to be conscious of avoiding is slowing down play to a point that it becomes a drawn out affair. The gladiatorial nature of NRL relies on speed and fatigue and needs to be preserved at all costs. There are shot clocks at the moment on things like drop-outs and scrums and perhaps during these intervals the bunker could review the reason for the stoppage and politely chat to the referee about the decision. Perhaps the on-field referee is the only person who can request a challenge of their own decision. This would mean that if they were not completely sure or were blind-sided then they could ask for a review. This leaves the matter in the hands of the officials and not the players or coaches who are emotive or concerned with bias rather than what did actually happen.

Perhaps if we allowed the on-field referee the sole beneficiary of the bunker then the control of the game and the manipulation of the game to prevent slowing down would be maintained. Referees are human and they will make mistakes, but like in cricket the questioning of the umpires decision can often leave a sour taste and takes away the respect that the referees have in the public spotlight.

The referee should be able to say “hang on a second, I didn’t have a clear view of that, can you put it on the screen for me and let me check it?” The referee then makes the call. All the bunker does is provide the technology to make the situation visible for the referee and then we have one consistent interpretation and one consistent respected decision. It may not be perfect but it will maintain integrity and the human error when explained might avoid the current disputes, conflicts and $10k fines for coaches.