It’s frequently labelled the coach’s crutch or the last vestige of the one-eyed obsessive but the bagging of referees is as much a part of our game as booming hits or the play-the-ball. And why not?
Sunday afternoons just wouldn’t be the same without the constant chorus of ‘forward’, bringing together fans both young and old in one of the few judgements they can all agree on.
But more recently, a stigma has developed around the criticism of officials and until we manage to shed it, progress will continue to be slow in coming.
Of course, a line has to be drawn between vitriolic bile and constructive comment but the latter is absolutely essential to the health of rugby league.
Back in the days of amateur officials, it was more difficult to justify the public barbs but at a time when many of our men in the middle are fully paid-up employees of the RFL, value for money is a valid concern.
Especially so when the relatively limited resources available mean the pool of officials in Super League is much smaller than that in the likes of Premier League soccer, immediately putting us at a disadvantage.
Whereas the spectre of promotion and relegation within the ranks keeps Premier League whistleblowers on their toes, knowing poor performances could result in a slide down the ranks, there is little scope for a similar system in rugby league.
That said, a smaller pool should also bring benefits. With fewer officials to regulate, in theory it should be much easier to implement a firm and consistent set of rules and guidelines throughout the game.
Yet inconsistency has been a common theme throughout the season. Even though we have been forced to endure endless discussion on spoiling tactics at the ruck, the lack of a firm hand in dealing with the issue has resulted in similarly endless interpretations of the rules.
Some referees clamp down heavily on delaying tactics, some adapt a more laissez-faire approach and some flit between the both and it’s doing nothing for the quality of football.
Too often, the referee’s own personality dictates the flow and nature of a game – each has their own inimitable style – and that appears to be the result of a serious lack of guidance from above.
There needs to be stricter guidelines for and measures of an official’s performance – and why not make them more accountable while we’re at it. If coaches and players are required to answer to the press after games, then why not the men in black (or a fetching shade of green, as the case may be).
It would be both refreshing and enlightening to hear the reasons behind certain decisions, right or wrong, and may actually help to build a few bridges in the process.
But going even further, the time could now be right in following the NRL’s lead and adopting an extra official, particularly to help police the ruck area.
The scheme has not been without its problems Down Under, primarily surrounding who has the final say in terms of decision-making, but it is at least a positive step towards remedying perceived ills in the game – and one the Australians have committed to beyond this season.
By speeding up play-the-balls, the quality of play has notably improved, yet the extra man means officials are actually finding it easier to keep up with the game.
It would provide a much-needed sign that we are not prepared to let our game become bogged down in a mangle of grappling limbs and would provide a welcome extra pair of eyes in spotting indiscretions – especially when still only a handful of games are allowed the benefit of a video referee.
Too many questionable calls are being allowed to slide and the Bulls have suffered as much as anyone else, with Craig Kopczak’s disallowed try during last week’s defeat to Hull FC the perfect example of a game-changing incident.
By showing a willingness to change and adapt, the RFL would be making a good start.