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It’s apparent the NRL’s new referees bosses have immediately stamped their authority on the game, with players toeing the line and penalty numbers dropping significantly on the same period last year despite some major rules crackdowns.

When former top referee Bill Harrigan and former NRL head coach Stuart Raper took over as referees bosses, fans were promised a return to some basics, primarily to “clean up” the look of rugby league and once again put some onus on the players to know and abide by the rules.

Now the game has better-looking scrums, with teams actually binding; players are onside at restarts; and players can’t just waltz off their marks to play the football, among other things.

In his day, Harrigan was known as a minimal-penalty referee. Despite the crackdown on some of the fundamentals, his influence is seemingly already rubbing off on his whistleblowers, with total penalties 38 less than this time last year. They have awarded 18 more penalties against teams with the ball – the effect of the crackdown – but overall, games are getting less influence from the men in the middle.

Surely that can only be a good thing, right?

“It’s not a coincidence,” co-boss Harrigan says. “It’s a lot of hard work by Stuart (Raper), myself and the referees.

“We have been very transparent about what we expect and the clubs have had our referees available for training sessions, so this helps in lower penalty counts.

“We are also making sure all of the media know what we are doing, when we are doing it – so it is of no surprise to anyone. And the public can be aware everyone has been warned.”

Morale in the referees’ camp has reportedly never been better, as some of the ‘rookie’ referees are getting the chance to actually have some considerable time in control of matches. Consequently these less-experienced referees are already coming of age.

“Our motto is ‘back to basics’,” Harrigan continues. “After some extensive research we identified what basic rules needed to be enforced and we believe our approach will have a positive effect on not just the NRL, but every level of the game.

“We asked the referees to go back to basic refereeing. This includes the touch judges, who have a more traditional role.

“Everybody, from grassroots right up to NRL, are now on the same page, with the same guidelines, so we will get consistency and in the next 10-15 years if we stick to it we will have a whole new generation of players who will be playing the correct way.”

In the Peter Louis and Robert Finch eras of refereeing, the thought process was for referees to gain a better understanding of what the players needed and wanted. This led to personalised name-calling and other “buddy-type” scenarios.

But visit the Game Analyser and watch the Dragons-Knights game from last Sunday. Listen to referee Tony De Las Heras: rather than “Kurt” do this, or “Chris”’ do that, it was very clearly “Number six, you’re offside!”, or “Number 12, roll away!” As a spectator listening on Sports Ears, you may not know who “Chris” is (perhaps there are two or three guys named Chris in a team). But if a referee calls number 12 offside, and he goes on to make a tackle, there’s no argument when a penalty is given.

In the past few seasons, the NRL coaches’ meetings have heavily influenced the referees – but Raper, who was one of those coaches not so long ago, says this was a touch problematic.

“Coaches had their own ideas and agendas that suited their own teams,” he pointed out.

“I guess there is a more traditional style of refereeing back now.

“We have given the young referees confidence. They are getting straight into the game now and are 50:50 sharing games from the word go. This means refereeing from the word go. And when we show confidence in them, they referee with confidence.”

It might be early days, and there may still be a few minor talking points, but chances are we are experiencing the start of a great era for officialdom in the sport.

So far this season there have been 389 penalties: 343 against defenders, 46 against attackers. At the same stage last season, the tally read 427 penalties: 399 against defenders, 28 against attackers. This means the 2011 premiership is averaging 12 penalties a game, as opposed to 13 a game at the corresponding stage in 2011.

And we can assume the 2011 average will drop further once all teams fall in line with the early crackdown (which Harrigan insists will last the entire season and final series – memo grand final teams – don’t push your luck on restarts or scrums!).

Delving deeper into penalties so far, Penrith emerges as the most ill-disciplined side with 35 conceded – or almost a whopping nine a game – so maybe it comes as no surprise they are at the foot of the ladder.

Meanwhile, the early season ‘clean skins’ are South Sydney and, surprisingly given their results, the Warriors. Both sides have conceded just 18 penalties, or 4.5 per game. This is a huge turnaround from the first month last year, when they conceded 30 and 31 penalties respectively.

When it comes to penalties in attack the Sea Eagles have been the biggest transgressors, giving up eight penalties when they had the ball. The Sharks are the best in this department and remain the only team yet to concede a penalty when in attack.

By far the most penalised player in the early part of 2011 has been Bulldogs hooker Michael Ennis, who has been pulled up nine times. This actually represents 38 per cent of all Bulldogs indiscretions!

The next biggest on-field ‘bad boy’ is Sea Eagle Anthony Watmough, who has had discipline issues with refs on six occasions so far.

Stats Insider’s other interesting penalty observations are:
- Most dangerous throws – Rabbitohs
- Most hands in play-the-ball – Panthers
- Most high tackles – Eels
- Most hold-downs – Panthers
- Most late tackles – Warriors
- Most markers not square – Eels
- Most offside inside 10 – Dragons
- Most stealing ball – Broncos
- Most starts/restarts – Panthers
- Most scrums – Knights
- Most leg pulls – Broncos
- Most second tackle – Broncos
- Most grapples – Roosters

Penalties conceded Rounds 1-4 (2010 in brackets)
18: Rabbitohs (30), Warriors (31)
20: Titans (30)
21: Broncos (19), Sharks (29)
22: Cowboys (25), Dragons (23)
24: Bulldogs (22), Wests Tigers (28)
25: Eels (28)
26: Sea Eagles (33)
27: Storm (31), Knights (27)
28: Raiders (24)
31: Roosters (22)
35: Panthers (25)