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Refs to maintain stance after fans' vote of confidence

Referees' general manager Tony Archer says their stringent policing of play-the-balls and ruck infringements will continue in 2019 after more than 25,000 fans polled by NRL.com voted their performance "acceptable" or better.

Of the 50,000-plus respondents to the NRL's official poll conducted over the space of a week which was published on Monday, 32.1% voted the whistleblowers' efforts as "acceptable", another 16.5% described them as '"good" and 3.3 % rated them "very good".

The 2018 season has been one of the most polarising on record for the referees' department given an early-season crackdown that peaked with an average of 20.9 penalties per game in round 11.

The steep rise in infringements prompted NRL CEO Todd Greenberg to publicly call for an end to referees' "nit picking", with the regular-season average of 15.3 penalties each game still well ahead of the next most prolific season average (12.8 penalties per game in 2016).

For Archer, the positive feedback from 51.9% of fans, coupled with an enthralling level of play in high-level contests like State of Origin and week one of the finals, vindicates the hard-line approach.

"It's quite pleasing for us," Archer told NRL.com.

"It's a reflection of the hard work the referees have done on field this year and that Bernie Sutton and the coaching staff have put in. And the fact that they've stayed consistent throughout the season.

"We made some changes as a result of the competition committee directions last season, particularly in relation to play-the-balls and having a stronger stance around the goal line.

"I think the referees have been really consistent and have enforced that across the year… and I think again you can look back to the semi-finals and the quality of football and play – part of that is because of the early enforcement of the rules.

"I expect the referees to continue to improve over the finals series with the stakes getting higher in games and our top referees officiating ... going forward we expect a similar standard."

By the same token, 48.2% of the fans polled voted the officials' performances "below average"(28.8%) or "poor" (19.4%).

"It's always a concern, and the referees are always working really hard to raise their performances," Archer said.

"They have to, that's the nature of the job. If our performances aren't up to scratch, people are held accountable and we'll continue to do that looking to lift the performances."

Results from the fans' poll also indicated a demand for fewer referrals to the Referees' Bunker (61.9%) and a desire to see five-minute sin bins introduced for minor infringements (58.5%).

Archer does not see the Bunker being used less despite the public response, claiming rugby league is one of the few professional sports to have reduced the influence of video technology in decision-making.

On-field officials only refer to the Bunker in serious instances of foul play, point-scoring plays, 20-metre restarts and line drop-outs.

"The challenge in reducing the Bunker's role is which of those elements would you take out," he said.

NRL referees' general manager Tony Archer.
NRL referees' general manager Tony Archer. ©NRL Photos

"This is one of the closest competitions in the world so we want to get those scenarios where points are scored correct, we make no apologies for that.

"The use of the Bunker for foul play happens quite rarely across the course of the season and the reason we use the Bunker for those in-goal restarts is that's the only part of the game where the referee is not directly in front of the play.

"We always review the Bunker's use at the end of each season and that will again occur at the end of 2018."

While 80.8% of respondents to the fans' poll said they would not consider becoming a referee, citing age and fitness constraints as well as perceived abuse, the 19.2% that would look at joining the officiating ranks equates to almost 10,000 people.

Veteran referee Matt Cecchin.
Veteran referee Matt Cecchin. ©Robb Cox/NRL Photos

Matt Cecchin kicked off a much-needed conversation around attitudes to the officials last month when he revealed abuse and death threats had played their part in his looming exit from the NRL.

Archer applauded his veteran referee's comments and the public's apparent interest in picking up the whistle.

With almost 20% of those who said they wouldn't do so because of perceived abuse, those figures took Archer by surprise as they are at odds with internal reviews among the referees' ranks.

Across all facets of the game the NRL currently boasts 4438 registered referees, with more than 10% of those female and a 66% retention rate between seasons for anyone who picks up the whistle.

"It's crucial, that conversation and the level of support you get inside the officiating tent – we're heightening that internal support," Archer said.

"We're certainly down the road of extending the access and use of a sports psychologist for the elite referees next year, in light of what not only Matt said but others as well.

"If we could get any sort of slice of that 10,000 people, that would be fantastic. The reasons why people don't want to be involved, the abuse aspect of that is very interesting.

"Our internal surveys tell us that once referees are in our system, that abuse is not the main reason for leaving the ranks. The two biggest factors are because of a zigzag pathway and a lack of coaching, which is what we're addressing now. But that perceived abuse affects the recruitment of officials."

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