In our game the referee is the most important man on the pitch. The same could be said of many, if not all, team sports or competitive sport in general. The referee, the umpire, the man in the middle, whatever he is called, he can have a massive impact on the game. It can be argued however, that because league is, at its base level, such a simple game, behaviour from the referee which favours a particular side can be catastrophic for the game. More so perhaps than football which, although a similar team sport, has a set of rules less open to interference or interpretation from the referee. In football, offside is offside, and it doesn’t matter where the referee is standing.
Now, and I must stress this, I am not and will never imply or insinuate or suggest conscious bias or dishonesty from any referee or match official associated with our great game. In fact, that sentence is so important I am going to repeat it.
The referee is not cheating!
There, I said it, and I stand by it. Every team, every supporter or fan, even every television commentator will have their own opinion. Indeed, on the terraces, in the pub, or watching from home, every person associated with our great game will have an opinion. I have been fortunate to have watched Rugby League all over the world, and whether it’s at the peak of the sport; Tonga v New Zealand, Queensland v New South Wales, or closer to home Wigan v Saints, Halifax v Featherstone or even my amateur club Boothtown v Elland, the opinions are always the same. The opposition are offside and the ref is a cheat. It is a given, an unshakeable belief held by a great deal of us regardless of background.
What we need to remember, and regularly forget, is that referees are human. They are the same as the rest of us. The momentary lack of concentration from a player, leading to a knock-on at the play-the-ball, or the missed conversion, despite the hours of practice, is not malicious. It is not purposeful, nor intentional. Indeed, the players are often trying so hard not to make a mistake that they slip up. They are human. So are the referees.
Without the referee we would not have a game. The referee is what stops our sport from sinking into violence. There are not enough referees currently in the game, at all levels, to support it. I have been a player in a local amateur side where each team supplied one player to be the referee for one half, in order to allow the game to take place. Consequently, the players and supporters still disagreed with some of the decisions, even when made by a team-mate and friend!
Recently, Super League tried to implement the NRL system of two referees. This is a fantastic system, as it allows for faster play-the-balls, better control of the offside rule for the defensive line, and ultimately there are two sets of experienced qualified eyes to police the ruck and root out the real misdemeanours from the gamesmanship. All fans would agree, a faster more fluid game, with less penalties, and more correct decisions is the holy grail for match officials. It is something we would all like to see.
However, the main stumbling block to this ideal, and the one which caused the RFL and Super League to hesitate, if not block the move altogether is that there are not enough referees! There are not enough people qualified, able, and most importantly willing to subject themselves to the abuse from fans. Robert Hicks was involved in a media storm recently, where a supposed Warrington fan sent him a vile death threat via social media. In an incredibly brave and forward thinking move, Mr Hicks met the supporter face to face, with the police present, and delivered a banning order organised by the Warrington CEO Karl Fitzpatrick. This positive move, in typical Rugby League style, was then undermined less than a week later!
In the opening minutes of the Challenge Cup Final, Mr Hicks ruled that Morgan Knowles had knocked on, rather than score a try. Mr Hicks was so confident in his decision that he didn’t refer to the video referee. In hindsight, with the benefit of slow motion it does appear that perhaps a mistake had been made. Crucially, Saints went on to lose the final. Their chairman, Eamonn McManus was then referred to the RFL for arguing, very publicly, that perhaps Mr Hicks was not in the best frame of mind and should not have been in charge of such a important game, especially not when Warrington were playing. Crucially, McManus did not criticise Lachlan Coote for missing a conversion from in front of the sticks, or any of the Saints players who were involved in uncharacteristic unforced errors, or even the coach for a lack of preparation. His first thought, despite being in such a prominent position, was to criticise or question the referee.
With all the issues faced by our great game, all the issues and competition for ever decreasing sponsorship revenue, surely this is one which needs to be addressed by the RFL, Super League, but also the game in general. We, as fans, have a duty to respect the referee, in the same way our players do. Alongside every grassroots initiative, there needs to be investment in recruiting, training, and crucially retaining referees. Without the referee, there can be no game.