It may have taken a few NRL teams some time to adjust but referees coach Stuart Raper has declared new guidelines introduced this season a raging success after referees blew noticeably fewer penalties over the opening weekend of the premiership than during the corresponding time last year.
While much of the focus during Round 1 was on a tightening of basic rules that saw penalties conceded while in possession rise from six in 2010 to 15 this year, the total number of penalties awarded across the eight games actually dropped from 108 to 93.
And with crowds hitting an all-time high for a single NRL round with 201,212 packing stadiums across the country, Raper said the game was already seeing the benefits of the ‘back-to-basics’ approach implemented by he and fellow referees coach Bill Harrigan this season.
“It was a two-fold thing last weekend. One, I’m really pleased with the way the referees have taken this on board and implemented changes in the guidelines and also the effect it’s had on the game has been extremely positive,” Raper said.
“We saw a very high quality first round and an exciting first round. I think the rucks were cleaner, we’re seeing a lot more attack from scrums because we’re binding them and holding them in so we’re seeing these great athletes in the backline competing one on one.
“And I don’t think it’s affected the game in regards to points. We still saw some high-scoring games and some low-scoring games. I was pretty pleased with everything.”
New guidelines introduced this season include cracking down on players being in front of the kicker from restarts, penalising kickers for taking line drop-outs in front of the tryline and, most tellingly, a tougher policing of the ruck with players now having to play the ball with their foot and being penalised for walking off the mark.
Certainly some clubs struggled to adjust in Round 1 with Penrith caught in front of the kicker on three different occasions and four penalties awarded in other games for walking off the mark. New Manly halfback Daly Cherry-Evans was also pinged for taking a drop-out in front of the tryline against Melbourne in what proved to be a decisive call.
But Raper said he expected the crackdown would see players learn their lesson sooner rather than later.
“I think that will certainly be the case,” he said. “The thing is about it, we’ve been very proactive in going out there and preaching what this is all about right from the word go. That includes the way we went through the process of interviewing people right from the word go to getting out to the clubs.
“We sent referees out to a number of clubs a number of times. We told the coaches and the media so everyone understood and we implemented it through the trials.
“Players being ill-disciplined is something that the coaches need to address. We weren’t out there saying ‘We got ya’, we just want the players to adhere to the rules and I think we’ll see that in the next couple of rounds.”
Ironically, Raper said the most-penalised clubs in Round 1 were not necessarily those that had refused a pre-season offer to have referees spend time with them during the pre-season.
Sydney Roosters topped the penalty counts at the weekend with nine conceded against South Sydney, while the Panthers, Canberra and Newcastle were close behind with eight.
“It was interesting – we didn’t see Wests Tigers over the summer and I thought they were very disciplined. Having said that, although we didn’t get out to them they were certainly at the coaches’ meeting, they got our guidelines, obviously read them and were very thorough in their preparation.”
Asked about the overall drop in penalties compared to Round 1 last year, Raper said the new guidelines were all about providing clarity in the rules, which he expected would benefit both players and referees alike.
“It’s that clarity of what we said we were going to do,” he explained. “We didn’t shy away from what we were going to do and the referees didn’t either. It’s not that we want to have penalties – our job is to contribute to good games of footy.
“Another good point I think is that there were eight less video referee decisions throughout the round compared to last year as well, so these guys are confident now in making decisions, which is obviously a good thing.”