NRL whistleblower Grant Atkins has dismissed claims of nepotism under referees' boss Bernard Sutton and Andrew Johns' suggestion that "constant chatter" in the officials' ears during play is eroding their confidence.
The middle Sutton sibling is again copping criticism aplenty after brother Gerard was demoted to what the NRL termed a lower-profile game - the Titans' clash with the Warriors - this weekend after Canberra's controversial loss to Cronulla all but ended the Raiders' finals hopes.
Touch judges Ricky MacFarlane and Gavin Reynolds were relegated to Intrust Super Premiership duties for their errors - MacFarlane in the lead-up to Sione Katoa's crucial try in the Sharks' 28-24 win and Reynolds because he disallowed a try to Canberra fullback Brad Abbey after incorrectly calling a cut-out pass from centre Joey Leilua as forward.
Video referee Luke Patten will again be in the Referees' Bunker for the Roosters-Dragons showdown on Sunday with Jared Maxwell as senior review official.
Atkins, who has more than 200 games of NRL experience across lead, assistant and touch judge roles, will be in charge of Thursday's blockbuster between the Sharks and Broncos.
Morale high despite dropped match officials
Claims of favouritism have been levelled at Bernard Sutton repeatedly this season, but Atkins said his demotion of younger brother Chris debunked those theories, which he says have never taken hold within the refereeing ranks.
"Bernie knew when he took on the job that was going to be one of the challenges," Atkins told NRL.com.
"But he's been very professional about that. Chris has been demoted at certain times this year as well for a number of things.
"He laid it on the table pretty early in the year and we acknowledged that it wasn't going to be an issue for us and I don't believe it has been within our four walls."
The youngest Sutton brother, who has been officiating since 2014, was demoted from head referee in the Cowboys-Rabbitohs round 11 clash to pocket ref duties the following week when Penrith hosted the Dragons.
Atkins also said the amount of feedback referees get from the Bunker and match-day coaches was "not as bad as what people seem to think".
Johns and the likes of Phil Gould have taken issue in recent times with the coaching of on-field officials under Sutton, with senior members of the referees squad including Ben Cummins and Matt Cecchin providing feedback to a lead referee throughout a game.
"In relation to match day coach and bunker you might hear from them maybe two or three times in a half," Atkins said.
"I know we've had some issues during the season where we've missed a couple of forward passes and some of that has to do with positioning for example.
"As referees if you can get a prompt from your match day coach to push up into a better position I'm pretty sure that most referees would prefer that information and that prompt come mid-game than after the fact and we miss one."
Following a significant media and fan backlash to the penalty crackdown earlier in the year, Atkins declared confidence levels among the elite referees' squad as "the best [since] I've been here".
After CEO Todd Greenberg's missive to stop "nitpicking" six weeks ago, Atkins expects the current discipline standards to be maintained across the rest of the regular season and this year's finals.
"We've got a time now where we've got the game where we would like it to be in terms of a level of compliance and I'm pretty sure the players would believe that as well," Atkins said.
"What we had to do at the start of the year was something that the game needed. The competition committee acknowledged that and if we look back at our performances last year and what we chose to officiate on, we weren't as good as we were at the start of this year.
"The game needed those changes… If we all keep our standards across the eight games we know what we're going to get for the rest of the season going into the semi-finals, which will make a big difference."