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NRL referee Ashley Klein

Leading NRL whistleblowers Grant Atkins, Ashley Klein and Gerard Sutton are the first match officials appointed to a newly formed Elite International Referees Panel ahead of next year's World Cup.

Atkins, Klein and Sutton were nominated by the ARL Commission and will take their places in the eight-person squad for 2021, with the other five spots to be filled by referees from other nations.

IRL match officials manager Stuart Cummings said that as members of the NRL referees squad, Atkins, Klein and Sutton were used to controlling high-intensity games and had considerable experience at Test level.

"It is great to have our first three referees announced for our new squads and these three referees have shown over a number of years that they can deal with the pressure of officiating at a high level in a tough competition," Cummings said.

"The fact that they are all vastly experienced International referees is of great benefit to the game particularly as we approach the Rugby League World Cup in 2021."

Gerard Sutton during the 2020 State of Origin series.
Gerard Sutton during the 2020 State of Origin series. ©Gregg Porteous/NRL Photos

All three have refereed in previous World Cups, with Atkins and Sutton making their World Cup debuts in 2017 and Klein having refereed in every World Cup since 2008 - a tournament in which he controlled the final.

Sutton, who refereed this year's NRL grand final and all three State of Origin matches, had charge of the 2017 World Cup final.

"This appointment is an honour and an exciting opportunity at a time when the strength of the international game is surging," Sutton said.

These three referees have shown ... they can deal with the pressure of officiating at a high level

IRL match officials manager Stuart Cummings

The Elite International Referees Panel will be made up of eight referees, with no one country being able to have more than three referees on the panel.

Cummings said the remaining referees will be selected to the panel as nominations are received from each country.

"It is an honour and privilege to be selected, international rugby league is something that has always been at the forefront of my aspirations as an official," Klein said.

Atkins also welcomed his appointment saying, "I am really pleased and excited to be selected for this new squad. I am looking forward to being part of the Elite International Squad and working with the other officials in the International game".

Under the IRL match officials program, referees are nominated and appointed to:

  • the Elite International Panel, where members will referee the top tier of games;
  • the International panel, where members will referee games below the top tier, or;
  • ┬áthe Emerging Panel, where members from emerging nations will be appointed to referee games between emerging nations.