There’s been a lot of rumours since the May 28 restart for NRL 2020 was confirmed.
There will be a return to one referee, a decision based on fan feedback and the need to save money after a few months of no footy. It’s a big move after a decade of two referees.
The NSWRFL/NSWRL/ARL/Super League/NRL survived with one referee for a century before two referees were introduced for the 2009 season. It was designed to lessen the physical stress on referees.
While fine in theory (and giving more opportunities to part-time referees), the two-referee system has muddied the waters, with a lot more penalties blown and officiating mistakes made. The worst example was Good Friday Night in 2018, with the Cronulla-Sutherland v Melbourne game (a spiteful contest at the best of times) featuring two sin bins and a ridiculous 33 penalties. Cronulla won 14-4 in easily the worst game of the year. Even the Channel Nine commentators were frustrated by the game’s stop-start nature. Along with Anzac Day, the Good Friday Night game is one of the most important regular season matches, and it was ruined by pedantic refereeing.
Then there was the “six again” controversy which possibly cost Canberra the 2019 grand final: or, at the very least, a shot at breaking the 8-8 deadlock with 10 minutes left.
With the Raiders retrieving a bomb close to the Sydney Roosters’ line, senior referee Ben Cummins initially signalled ‘six again’ but was overruled by assistant referee Gerard Sutton. Jack Wighton didn’t see Cummins change his call back to ‘fifth and last’ and was amazed when Canberra had to turn the ball over. The experienced Roosters exploited the frustrated and confused Raiders, with James Tedesco scoring the winning try.
The return to one referee should eliminate any on-field confusion, with experienced referees controlling the whole game.
Watching the classic NRL games on the NRL website (which have filled the void for hungry footy fans), you can see the authority of expert referees like Bill Harrigan and Greg McCallum. With less reliance on technology, the games were more fluent with the referees making their decisions on the spot.
Hopefully a return to one referee will see a more free-flowing game. The flip side is the senior referees won’t be held accountable for mistakes, so if teams lose two points (or, heaven forbid, a grand final) due to a incorrect decision, they’ll have to cop it as they watch the usual Monday apology.