COMMENT: Refereeing by Vaughan Famularo


The Cult of Rugby League

If a person new to the game of rugby league was taken to say, two matches a week for six weeks by a long-time fan who tried to explain the game and how it is played and officiated, it would be no wonder if the new fan to the game ran away fearing he is being sucked into some type of cult!
Such are the double standards that we take for granted in the way the rugby league is officiated and how we league fans just continue to accept the rabble dished up to us without surprise or consequence!

The referees on the field and the judiciary and Match Review Committee off the field are so out of touch with reality that the gulf of separation from the fans only increases with every decision they make.

Like a cult, the leaders appear to be a law unto themselves and answerable only to themselves.

I have been playing, coaching and watching this game for 50 years. Age does bring a relevance and the ability to compare the way things were to the way things are. You can see the journey clearly, the path it has taken, and the state of arrival much better than someone who joined up later in the process.

The game has now changed so much that we need to stop at a watering hole somewhere, and take a rest for a bit to see where we actually are before moving on

The Judiciary

Geoff Toovey came out this week and said that the judiciary system needed overhauling because Steve Matai received a week on the sidelines for his 10th high tackle charge of his career. Most judiciary rulings lately just leave us fans flummoxed, regardless of what they rule because we fans just don’t know any more what the rules are and what the punishments are likely to bring!

Matai is a serial offender and when all of the noise out of the NRL Commission is to stop contact with the head, Matai gets a smack on the wrist!

Three weeks ago Anthony Minichiello got sent off and charged with a Grade three striking charge for a forearm to the head yet he got off Scott-free!

Travis Burns gets nine weeks for a tackle that seemed the same as, or less serious than,  Minichiello’s!

Once again, the judiciary and their boss Greg McCallum seem a law unto themselves with no rational or consistent rulings or outcomes. We, the fans, are sick of the same people feeding us the same doublespeak.

Try writing to Greg McCallum and politely question his rulings and see what response you get. Actually, try writing to any member of the NRL and see what you get in return.

You’ll get a standard mass produced reply that basically says “You don’t know anything, and your opinion doesn’t matter!

The Referees

There are two terms that give the referees total control of the games rules and how the game is played: interpretation and discretion.

However, the referees are very discreet with how those rules will be interpreted from week to week. Even from one game to another, or one half to another.

Once again, the referees are a law unto themselves and are seemingly answerable to no-one, especially the fans.

However, they do have to answer to someone……they have to answer to their boss and conductor, Bill Harrigan.

Of course there is a junior partner who helps Bill, his name is Stuart Raper, but let’s face it, the man with the power, the vision, and the conductor of everything in the refereeing orchestra is … Bill Harrigan!

Referees Boss

In the hit TV show Seinfeld there is a great character, Bob Cobb, who is ‘The Maestro’ played by Mark Metcalf.

‘The Maestro’ is opinionated and has an over-inflated zeal of self importance and demands to be called “The Maestro” even though he only conducts the “Policeman’s Benevolent Association Orchestra.”

Where reality imitates art, rugby league’s version of ‘The Maestro’ is none other than Harrigan. The only difference with the Seinfeld version of “The Maestro” and rugby league’s version is that our “Maestro” has real power and lot’s of it.

In fact, what he says determines how the game is played, how fast it is played, what constitutes legal play and illegal play.

His decrees are so important that coaches speak to him consistently to work out how to coach their team for the upcoming games. His decrees to the referee’s determine how slow players can get off tackled players, what determines foul play, how to ‘interpret’ a shepherd, or for you younger guys, obstruction.

The referee’s discretion applies to things like the depth players have to stand at marker defence, which can completely negate dummy half runnin, or what constitutes forward passes …  and the list goes on and on and on.

Harrigan has a LOT of power how the game is played. I use the word ‘played’ as opposed to ‘officiated’ because the referees’ influence is so great upon the way the modern game is played that the whistler can be as influential to the outcome of a game as a star player is to a club.

The referee was never intended to add to the spectacle. The position is supposed to be neutral in every facet. However, there seems to be an attitude within the refereeing body now that they are as important to the spectacle as the players.

And that inflated importance flavours their overall attitude and performance. This is at the core of what is very wrong about present-day  rugby league.

To add to the frustration, penalties are so subjective! We watch time and time again when a player is penalised in a tackle for an obscure ruling yet the same obscure ruling seems to be ignored 20 more times during the game.

We can hear referees warn a player repeatedly for an infringement, without a penalty, and then watch another get penalised without any warning for the same offence.

Once again, ‘The Maestro’ Harrigan seems to be totally removed from any real criticism –  certainly anything that changes the situation for the better. And once again, the fans are treated with utter contempt if they seek to get palpable answers to subjective decisions.

Our version of ‘The Maestro’ is definitely conducting with a broken baton,

But we happy clappers of rugby league are not surprised by these strange events because we have become so accustom to them that we don’t even question if it is strange to run a game like this.

So why has this strange set of circumstances become the norm?? What led to this?

I hear the cry over and over again that ‘all we want is consistency’ but how can you have consistency when you rule by interpretation of the rules on a minute-to-minute basis with 50 different officials interpreting differently.

All you can produce – and should expect to produce – is incompetence. And incompetence is what we are continually getting.

Hence my first paragraph with the new fan and the feeling that they may be joining a cult.

We long-time rugby league fans are really like members of a cult. We continually cop abuse and just keep coming back for more!

Over the years we have been treated with little to no respect by the people who have run the game, except for the tenure of John Quayle who did seem to have a genuine respect for the fans and the game and look what happened to him.

Then, Super League, and the players and clubs that jumped on that bandwagon treated we fans like some type of bacteria on a petri dish.

Like a cult, we have been asked to hand over our money without having a voice in the many frustrations that poison the game we love.

Like a cult member, we keep coming back to get our intelligence abused again and again by inane decisions of the “Leadership Group” and if that wasn’t bad enough, more intellectual abuse when they try to validate those decisions as sane and rational.

I mean really, if you think I’m wrong about being like members of a cult, try and explain to someone what a rugby league scrum is!

You’ll end the explanation with the ‘thousand yard stare’ on your face, while reaching for some coolaid with ‘Return to Jim Jones!’ written on the glass.


One thought on “COMMENT: Refereeing by Vaughan Famularo

  1. Great article Vaughan & i agree with you in total.
    In my 40 years of watching the game officiating seems to have progressed to the point, where it is now run by one man’s ego – Harrigan’s. Greg Prichard wrote in his weekly ‘Set of Six’ column last Monday that the whole refereeing department needed blowing up & rebuilding. He is right. In a great season for the game where it has gained independence, negotiated a great broadcasting deal for itself & seen great players perform great feats on a weekly basis its officiating has been nothing short of atrocious & has worsened as the season has progressed.
    This issue is the biggest confronting the game & many questions need to be asked & answered. For a start both Bill Harrigan & Stuart Raper should have their contracts terminated next week by the ARLC. Their incompetence speaks for itself. If it can take three months to get find the next ceo of the game then let’s start looking now for a new person to run the referees.
    Here’s a few questions NRL should be asking all clubs, players & yes & most importantly the fans.
    Are we getting the referees we deserve ?
    Why do we need a video referee at all ?
    Should we go back to in goal referees instead ?
    Do we need two referees on the field ? One seemed enough for the first 101 years of the game.
    Why do all penalty counts need to be close ? Once upon a time a 10-2 penalty count was a sign of bad discipline from one team. These days that can’t be seen to happen.
    Do more officials involved in the game just equal more confusion ? (witness the North Queensland / Manly semi final debacle as an example)
    Why are touch judges now rendered impotent ?
    Why do we have to ‘adjust, change & modify’ the rules on a yearly basis ? Is this necessary or just an unhealthy obsession ?
    Why are referees so obsessed with the need to impose their will on the outcome of games ? It seems, especially as this season has gone on that referees seemingly have to impose their stamp on the outcome of the game. It’s not enough for the players to actually win it for their teams through great play, it has to be a result of an action by a referee that caused it ? Funnily enough i recall that this was eerily similar to when Bill Harrigan was actually an on field referee !
    The obsession with ‘We are above criticism’ ?
    The players have been made to act in a professional manner at all times these days, both in season & the off season, why do we continuously have unprofessional referees, who through their on field actions always seem to end up the main talking point after games ?

    Love to hear a few answers ?

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