ASK most NRL coaches their biggest fear and they will say referees. A couple of coaches might be terrified of their wives, a few by their boards and most by the loss of a star player, but all are frightened of the influence of the referee on match day.
Four-time premiership coach Tim Sheens is typical: “I worry about the things I can’t control and there are two – injuries and the referee. Penalties are becoming a big issue for coaches. Some penalties cost you more than others and back-to-back sets are costly.”
One in three tries now derive from penalties, meaning referees have a greater impact than any time in the past. Sheens, who began coaching first grade in 1984 and will take charge of the City team against Country on Friday night, said: “I worry more about the referee than at any time in the past.”
Last Saturday’s Cowboys versus Storm match in Townsville has brought the role of the referee into sharp focus, following Gavin Badger’s 11-2 penalty count against the Storm, who won 12-10.
“The Cowboys should have beaten Melbourne by 30 points with the possession they had,” Sheens said. “They lost the ball and gave away the advantage they were getting from the referee. You normally have no chance of winning with a disproportionate penalty count like that.”
Storm coach Craig Bellamy has submitted a report to NRL referees’ director Robert Finch highlighting the contentious penalties but will not elaborate until he analyses them with Finch’s assistant, former Sharks coach Stuart Raper. “I’ve put in a report but have not been able to sit down with Stuart Raper,” said Bellamy, who has been involved midweek with State of Origin duties and attempts to re-sign Melbourne prop Jeff Lima.
“We will sit down at either end of a phone, with the vision of the incidents on our separate computer screens and go through each one. There were six or seven penalties which we dead-set deserved, but there were three to five that may not have been the case. I want to know where we erred and where they [the Cowboys] didn’t err.”
Badger’s performance has been brought into even sharper focus because it is alien to a bizarre trend this year in which more than half the whistlebowers have favoured the away team. Historically, referees favour the home team, with last year’s total count being 1197 penalties against the home team and 1470 against the away team. Not one of the 11 referees used last year favoured the away team, with most clustering around a match ratio of four penalties against the home team and five against the visitors.
This year, however, after seven rounds two experienced referees, Tony Archer and Sean Hampstead, have punished the home team more – Archer 49-45 and Hampstead 46-41. The overall 2008 count of 336 penalties against the home team and 367 against the away team is disproportionately lower than previous years. Admittedly, there are five teams playing out of ANZ Stadium, which is effectively a neutral venue, particularly if the numbers of supporters is even.
Only, Badger, with a 16-33 penalty count has seriously bucked the trend, his 1:2 ratio at odds with the historical trend as well. Hampstead appears to be least affected by crowd pressure, producing the closest home and away count last year of 153-171.
Badger was 131-159 last year, consistent with the others, meaning coaches who draw him in future away games have reason to hope his one-way whistling in Townsville was aberrant.
Nevertheless, there is a suspicion among coaches that deviant statistics are the product of deviant players or those whom referees perceive to be rule breakers. Melbourne’s Michael Crocker was penalised twice in Townsville for holding down, yet the second penalty was perversely unwarranted. It would seem rugby league’s old “give a dog a bad name and it sticks” credo – a source of great frustration to the Les Boyds and Gorden Tallises – still lives.
The Storm have never lost a game while Crocker has been on the field but, given the power of penalties in the modern game, his bad-boy image will inevitably break his own proud record.