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OPINION: Don’t Blame the Bunker

Too many times this season my family has found me pacing angrily around the house, throwing things in outrage, grumbling incoherent ramblings. ‘Something, something, bloody referees.’. Can you relate?

The NRL is constantly changing because the media and fans constantly find new parts of the game to complain about. 2016 brought several significant changes to the game including the bunker, the interchange reduction, and the shot clock.

Ten rounds into the season, the Bunker has reached a natural climax of disgust in the eyes of NRL fans due to certain inaccuracies. Referee head honcho and PR king, Tony Archer, is scrambling around trying to pick up the pieces of its swiftly shattered reputation while former referees are blowing whistles harder than they did on field to push old Tony into the dirt.

Obstruction and shepherding rules, missed penalties, and ‘overstepping their responsibilities’ are all ‘issues’ that the bunker has stirred up in its short time in power. Tony Archer has regularly come out to the media admitted wrong calls in certain instances (never in any cases that would change the result of a game *wink* #PRking) to appease fans.

Before the season NothingButLeague spoke to Panther’s legend, Scott Sattler, about his thoughts on the new rule changes and how they would affect the game. The man might be a prophet because a lot of what he said has been correct.

‘The shot clock is just a gimmick thing,’ he said.

‘The only way (the interchange) is going to change the game is if a player really gets injured or a bad head knock where they can’t come back on the field and then you do have to start digging into your reserves. When they take it to six interchanges, that’s when the games become another spectacle.’

Over the weekend fans were treated to a rare spectacle when the Bunker was used significantly less than usual. Referees were discerning calls with confidence rather than the usual ‘guess and hope the bunker figures it out’ method. Despite the referees still making wrong decisions, there was something refreshing about the primitive approach. Many prominent figures in the game, particularly commentators, often wish to return to a simpler time when the on field officials’ calls were final, but would the abolition of video referees be logical?

The simple and ultimate reason that instantly ends the debate is that technology exists. It is refreshing to return to the beautiful times of referees making the tough calls, but if that were to happen it would probably take roughly a quarter of a season and a few games lost due to wrong calls before people would start offering their first born child for the return of the video referee. Technology to personally review plays is easily accessible for the average person which removes the doubt that existed when there were no video referees. Every man and his dog sitting at home can rewind the TV themselves if they want to and become a professional video referee.

Sattler said that the Bunker is a positive thing for the game but they are still getting it wrong in a lot of areas.

‘The bunker is an opportunity to maybe get the officials away from the forefront of the game, not being influenced (not saying they are influenced) but taking away that possible influence. They don’t realise the momentum of the game as they watch from the bunker. So they can’t be influenced by that. I can’t be influenced by the surroundings, so by throwing the officials in a dark hole and officiating that way, I think it’s a good thing,’ he said.

One particular fault of the bunker that he condemned, which has also been hotly debated this season, was the ‘benefit of the doubt’ rule.

‘If it goes to the video referee and the ref says “I think it’s a try”, and the video referee can’t be conclusive, then we just go with the on-field referee’s decision,’ he said.

‘We have to, and Bill Harrigan used to do it really well, allow the referees to say “I’ve got no idea, come up with a decision for me”.’

‘With all the angles they’re going to have a better view of a potential try than a referee is. We shouldn’t be forcing him to make a decision.’

The real issue isn’t the technology, but how the technology is used. If you can actually get your hands on a 2016 NRL rule book it doesn’t even provide clarity for many of the rules that are under siege. There is a good reason why there is a lack of consistency between calls made. Many of the rules that the referees are following are extremely ambiguous and they are being told what to do behind closed doors rather than having a clear, defined solution.

In a recent SBS interview with Tony Archer, the man himself apparently admitted that the rules for the bunker’s role in giving penalties had not been properly defined. He said that at the moment the Bunker can only interfere if they believe a person is likely to be charged at the judiciary, but previously they could interfere for a reportable offence. Apparently coaches are asking for less interference from the Bunker.

“They’re looking at it in those details now, so until we get back before the competitions committee, we’ll stick with this.”

It seems that some of the rules of the bunker are week-to-week at the moment. So many rules seem to be up to interpretation. Obviously this is the first year that the Bunker has been used so it won’t be perfect, but if there was a clear definition of what they can and cannot do then that should be the law for the rest of the season. If rules are regularly changing then it causes more confusion and outrage. It seems that the referees keep the rules ambiguous so they can remove the blame from themselves when they get the call wrong or they can argue that they made the correct call.

Referees simply aren’t held accountable anymore which is a huge part of the reason why people do wish that there was no bunker. The NRL is so diligent about protecting the referees which is fair to an extent because they are a very important part of the game; however, like every player, coach, and fan who does something wrong, they should be held accountable.

Trent Robinson was fined $20,000 for his actions in a press conference that compromised the integrity of a certain referee. If he had gone into that conference and actually made malicious, defamatory comments then he should have been reprimanded, but all he did was calmly stated what he believed to be the truth about what had happened between the referee and his team. Was the referee punished or even questioned?

Referees are a very important part of the game but they need to be held accountable to receive respect. The rules and systems need to be transparent to work towards improving clarity between referees, fans, players, coaches, and commentators. Transparency is how they can earn respect, hopefully then the complaining would stop.

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