The game in danger? Refereeing changes cast doubt

NRL 2020 MAIN 1000px
Embed from Getty Images

The NRL for many seasons has been lauded for being in the best state in its history from a viewership and entertainment value perspective, but that is now in danger with this week's new rule changes and the move back to one referee.

As someone who has seen a lot of Rugby League at both one- and two-referee levels, there is a complete difference in the product of the game with one referee games, which are usually slower and much messier affairs. This happens a lot because the referee is either forced to focus on either the ruck and how that plays out, or focussing on the 10 metres - with the difficulty being that they cannot see either. In most cases, the touch judges who assist on either side are usually too far away to be a force on the ruck.

I am quite often critical of referees, but they do a good job on the whole and the game is a much better product in the past decade than it had been previously. The reduction to one referee isn't going to solve anything to do with 'the wrestle in the game' because there isn't going to be a referee on the ruck to police it so will become worse and teams will very quickly work out how to get away with things because the sole referee will be too far away and essentially be in a blind spot so that he or she won't be able to see what is going on.

The other rule change that looks to be a complete contrast to the reasoning that was given for the re-introduction of one referee, is the six-again call on any ruck infringement as determined by the referee. Personally, this doesn't make a game any faster because it means that teams won't get punished for slower rucks earlier in the set of six, especially when the defence is on the back foot because the restarting of the tackle count means that teams will be more comfortable to give the "penalty" away so that they can get their defensive line back and set earlier. This will benefit the teams that are better at the wrestle because they can manipulate the situation to benefit their teams whether it being on their own line or when they are keeping their opponents on their own line.

The changes to the game are the result of people who want to make the game fit their agenda, and are now celebrating the fact that they are getting what they wanted despite the fact that at every opportunity they are more than happy to talk the game down.

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, the game was in a very good state and fans were enjoying the first two rounds of the competition. The 'nostalgia factor' of the game and watching the classics of previous seasons has been good - but these were a different time where the game was less professionalised, where players would leave the field heavily concussed and return in 20 minutes time. Every sport has moved on to fit the modern times of the game, and the "glory days" of the 80s and 90s are a different era.

Recently, watching the Panthers 1991 Grand Final victory on Fox League was very enjoyable, but even under the control of Bill Harrigan - who was, and is considered to be the best referee the game has ever had - the rucks were a mess and the play the ball was nothing like it is now days.

The rule changes have been taken poorly by the majority of fans who were happy with the overall state of the game, while the decision has been not fully welcomed by the players or coaches, who haven't seen the need for the changes because the game hasn't called for the changes. Anything that is changed now - without a trial period - is almost certainly going to make the game worse. 

There is always the possibility that the changes work, but at the end of the day as the saying goes, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" - and that's how the game looks to me at the current point right now.