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NRL referee Gerard Sutton.

Quarantined referees attempted to practice new rules on each other as they impersonated NRL players in just one of the unique challenges for the match officials in 2020.

Grand final referee Gerard Sutton believes the rule changes this year, with the reduction from two on-field referees to one and the addition of a set restart ruling for minor ruck infringements, have benefitted both the game and the officials – but it hasn't all been smooth sailing. 

"We only had two weeks prior to resuming to get our heads around the rule changes and how that was going to work," Sutton said. 

"In that time we couldn't go out to clubs and attend their training and scrimmages to get real game-like practice so we had 30 referees out here [at ANZ Stadium] trying to do their best impersonations of first grade footballers – which wasn't pretty! 

"But that was as good as we could do to simulate going into restarting the season … we're just grateful to be going back in and having football to referee and making the best of it." 

Sutton said that despite what some may think, referees don't enjoy blowing constant penalties and previously had to make a choice between letting minor things slide or slowing the game down. 

"It's taken a lot of pressure off us; the difficulty before was no-one ever liked lots of penalties resulting in stoppages but there was no other lever for us to pull if the team was slowing in the ruck," he said. 

"So they'd sort of get the benefit of giving away a penalty then being able to re-set their line and go again and we were under pressure about the number of stoppages we were seen to be creating whereas the six-again, as it's worked out, it's proven to be a real deterrent.  

"It really hurts to have to defend those extra tackles but the game isn't stopping so they don't get to re-set the line."

The new captain's challenge has been both a blessing and curse for officials, Sutton said. 

"We all know it's rare we're perfect during the game but to stand out on the field and sometimes have a decision overturned, you have to be big enough to go 'yep, OK, got that wrong' and move on," he said. 

"But ultimately it's the right outcome for the game … I think the changes this year have been about the greater good of the game." 

The benefit has been able to throw the decision straight back onto players who want to argue a call. 

"At times it's good to be able to say 'well I've ruled it this way, if you really think I'm 100% wrong, challenge it' – so it almost puts it back on them a little bit and you see them sort of go 'oh actually I'm not that sure about it as well'," he said.

Then there were two

NRL head of football elite competitions Graham Annesley praised Sutton ahead of the referee's sixth grand final, but his first as a sole referee. 

"It's a big appointment for him to be out there as a single referee and the responsibility that it carries in a grand final is enormous," Annesley said. 

"Without wanting to draw back on last year, we saw controversy last year with two referees on the field. We've had a relatively controversy free season under a single referee and I hope that continues into Sunday night." 

Annesley also praised the impact of the rule changes this year as broadly positive for the sport and while no decision or even recommendation has yet been made about whether they will stay, there is support for them to be retained.  

"Ultimately it's a matter for when we went with the single referee and we had negotiations with their association about that, there was a dispute at the time and part of the settlement of that dispute was we would agree that we would review it with a panel at the end of the year," he added. 

"That panel will include members of their association, and some neutral people that are yet to be selected, independent people. We'll discuss that and the commission will make the decision. 

"I expressed a personal view yesterday that I think the single referee has worked very well this year and I know that there's a general view out there that that's the case. But we need to do some analytics around it. All of the stats that were seeing at the moment are pointing in the right direction. I can't take it as a foregone conclusion, we have to go through the process."