Ricky’s right, and we’ve got the figures to prove it.
Last week after his team lost a crucial game due to a blatant error by the NRL bunker, Raiders’ coach Ricky Stuart claimed that the $2 million-a-year referral system was ‘damaging the fabric’ of rugby league.
It’s hard to disagree, especially when considering just how much the bunker is now involving itself in the game.
Canberra boss Ricky Stuart is right, the NRL bunker is ‘damaging the fabric’ of rugby league
Unveiling plans for the bunker in October 2015, the-then NRL head of football Todd Greenberg predicted zero errors by video referees once the system was introduced the following season.
He also said it would speed up the game.
‘The video referees are not going to micro-manage the game,’ he said. ‘This is about decision making. It’s about game continuity. It’s about stopping those long breaks in play.’
Not so much. Seven years on, the bunker is falling so far short on both of those lofty ambitions as to be laughable. In fact, rather than making things better, it’s made them worse.
The Raiders coach became the latest NRL boss to hit out at the referral system last weekend
The $2m-a-year bunker was introduced in 2015 to speed up the game and eradicate mistakes
In last weekend’s Cowboys-Knights match, for example, play was halted for an incredible total of 14 minutes 15 seconds while the ‘experts’ in the bunker considered their verdict.
That was made up of four try decisions (a total of five minutes 37 seconds), seven try confirmations (six minutes 58 seconds) and two captain’s challenges (one minute 40 seconds).
And two of those bunker decisions – a try awarded to Tom Dearden and one denied to Jason Taumalolo – were contentious to say the least.
Which, as Ricky Stuart said, raises the question: why even have the bunker?
It’s not as if they’re getting it right all the time, which was the whole point.
The fact is, wherever there is a human element, there is always going to be error.
It is true for the bunker now, just as it was for referees back in the days when they controlled the game without the aid of technology.
Ex-NRL chief Todd Greenberg promised that there will no longer be mistakes with the bunker
Arguably the best rugby league referee of all time (just ask him), was Bill Harrigan, and even he made the occasional howler, such as the two NSW knock-ons he missed before a try to Ryan Girdler in Origin 1, 2000.
Those obvious errors, which led to enraged Queenslander Gorden Tallis being sent from the field for abusing Harrigan, were replayed on TV for days but even then ‘Hollywood Bill’ wouldn’t admit he was wrong.
‘I can’t be wrong,’ he said. ‘I’m the referee, I’m in charge. My decisions are final. Get over it.’
Maybe it is an injection of that sort of attitude that the NRL needs from its referees, rather than chasing more and more advanced technology – including putting a micro-chip in the ball to detect forward passes as has been recently reported.
Ricky Stuart has said he would like to see the bunker used only for contentious try decisions. Maybe even that is too much, with plenty of people involved in the game questioning its value at all.
However, mistakes are still being made by officials in the bunker and the game is now slower
Last weekend’s game between the Knights and the Cowboys was halted for an incredible 14 minutes 15 seconds while the ‘experts’ raked over decisions
Stuart, whose side lost by one point after video referee Steve Chiddy was hoodwinked by a blatant dive by Warriors forwards Matt Lodge, is one of three coaches over the past month who have publicly questioned the need for the bunker after contentious decisions have gone against their sides.
St George-Illawarra coach Anthony Griffin got the ball rolling in round 7 when he said that Roosters winger Daniel Tupou would have ‘got two years jail’ last season for his head-high tackle on the Dragons’ Mikaele Ravalawa.
Instead Tupou stayed on the field, with referee Adam Gee reportedly telling an incredulous Dragons’ captain Ben Hunt that the tackle had been ‘cleared upstairs’.
Last Saturday night Cowboys coach Todd Payten was fuming after his backrower Jason Taumalolo was denied a try by the bunker that appeared to many onlookers, including Fox League commentator Michael Ennis, to be perfectly fair.
Describing the bunker as ‘consistently inconsistent’, Payten said it was, ‘there to make the right decisions and we’re just not getting enough of them.’
Instead, what the game is getting is interference that it doesn’t need.
Rather than cutting down on the number of off-field officials making decisions that affect the on-field action – as Greenberg boasted the bunker would achieve back in 2016 – it is actually increasing them.
In Round 7, the bunker missed a clear sending off offence when Mikaele Ravalawa was struck by Daniel Tupou
This year the NRL has added doctors to the mix, with medicos sitting in front of screens in the bunker in Sydney remotely ruling on possible head injuries on grounds up to thousands of kilometres away.
While plausible in theory, it has at times proved just as unsuccessful as other bunker innovations, the standout example being Sharks forward Cameron McInnes being sent from the field for a head injury assessment on a bunker doctor’s recommendation – after being kicked in the groin.
The captain’s challenge was another innovation aimed at eliminating errors, but it has instead been used as a tool by coaches to manipulate the rules – such as Titans players deliberately giving away penalties to stop play in order to call for a review of an earlier decision.
It has also added to the ‘damaging the fabric of the game’ that Ricky Stuart spoke about.
Last weekend, the atmosphere at the biggest club game of the year between the Panthers and Eels was off the scale at kick-off, with the crowd roaring and the players responding.
The bunker also killed the atmosphere between Penrith and Parra within seconds of kick off
Then, just three minutes and 47 seconds into the game, came the first captain’s challenge by the Eels. For the next 62 seconds the bunker reviewed the decision before ruling against the Eels. Referee Gerard Sutton then called the teams together to set a scrum.
It took another 25 seconds for play to resume, a total of one minute 27 seconds of nothingness as the atmosphere sank like air let out of party balloon.
It was the same at the Sharks-Warriors game where it took the bunker 55 seconds to decide that Will Kennedy should be sent off for his shocking coat-hanger on Reece Walsh, and another 45 seconds to send Jesse Ramien to the sinbin for his shoulder to the head of Euan Aitken.
While Ramien could also have been sent off, both decisions could have been made by an on-field referee instantaneously without the bunker’s time-wasting involvement.
It is time that the NRL accept the experiment has not worked and kick the bunker into touch
Then there is arguably the greatest time waster and mood killer of all – the requirement that the bunker review and confirm every single try decision made by the on-field referee, regardless of how obviously correct it might be.
This week a lifelong South Sydney supporter spoke for thousands of disgruntled NRL supporters when he told me how frustrated he had become at the bunker’s meddling.
‘It’s got to the stage where I can’t get excited about a try until it is confirmed by the bunker,’ he said.
‘That used to be one of the great things about watching the game, that feeling you get when your team goes over for a try. Now I have to wait until the bunker looks at it from every possible angle before it gives it the green light.
‘It’s like I can’t be happy until the bunker gives me permission.’