The NRL confirmed this week it wants to drop the two-referee system that has been in play for more than a decade.
But referees are not happy about the last-minute decision. They have lodged a dispute with the Fair Work Commission.
While they are mindful of the wider interests of all stakeholders in the game, they say reverting to a single referee has enormous implications for the pace of the game.
Not one but two refs
Under the two-referee system, a lead and an assist referee make decisions in partnership with their two touch judges.
A matchday referee coach and a senior review official in the centralised video bunker in Sydney provide further support.
During play the lead referee manages roughly 80% of the time, and the assist (or “pocket”) referee 20%. This system was introduced in 2009 to lessen the physical stress on referees and to try to eliminate the grapple and wrestling holds that happen in the ruck when players are tackled.
The two-referee system certainly ticked all the boxes to begin with, as it allowed NRL referees to physically manage around 282 rucks per game, 36 kicks in play and 38 restarts.
It provided immediate clarity and confidence at key times for both the lead and assist referee.
The game was played faster by having the pocket referee handle the ruck. This meant the lead referee didn’t have to continually glance or run back to control this space.
Furthermore, under the two-referee system, the game became more fluent as it allowed each player’s athleticism to entertain the fans.
Drop that second ref
So why does the NRL and Australian Rugby League Commission want to scrap the two-referee model? What evidence has been put forward to judge whether reverting to a one-referee system will work?
ARL Commission chairman Peter V’landys says the overwhelming majority of fans in a 2019 survey wanted the competition to return to using one on-field referee to make the game more unpredictable and entertaining.
That’s hardly solid evidence to say the game would be better played with one referee rather than two.
The notion put forward by V’landys that two refs are a luxury is underscored by estimates that reverting to one referee could save the NRL about $3 million.
Not happy refs
But the Professional Rugby League Match Officials (PRLMO) say they were not consulted about replacing the two-referee system.
In defence of this system they also say the assist referee calls more than 80% of illegal tackles and play-the-ball infringements (a method for bringing the ball back into play after a tackle, in which the tackled player is allowed to stand up and heel the ball behind them to their team-mate).
Furthermore, figures published by the NRL in 2018 show 38% of all play-the-balls in World Cup games, where a one-referee system operates, were classified as very slow and took more than four seconds to complete.
So what’s best for fans and those who love the game? How should the NRL settle the debate about whether the one- or two-referee system should be the way of the future?
We need a proper examination that includes the experiences of current and past NRL referees, combined with their physical and technical data, as authentic evidence for the NRL to decide whether a one-referee system will be any better than the two-referee model.
The NRL must be prepared to invest in this research to provide real-world insights into any benefits and limitations of both referee systems. That would allow any future developments to be based on fact.
Without a sound base of knowledge and a complete picture of what constitutes the work of NRL referees, I believe any attempts to select, develop and promote one system over the other will be limited at best and fundamentally flawed at worst.