A point of controversy that many NRL fans have zeroed in on lately, is the fact that close calls in potentially game-defining moments, go in favour of the competition’s better sides more often than not.
Yes, the overall statistics do not reflect this as the two teams who have conceded the most penalties in the competition, the Sharks and Storm, are two top four teams with the Rabbitohs and Sharks also in the top three for errors in 2022.
However, when specifically looking at matchups between the league’s best and worst sides it cannot be denied that the better teams often have the fifty-fifty calls go their way whether they should or should not.
This is something that coaches, in particular, have begun to notice in recent weeks with Gold Coast Titans head coach Justin Holbrook and North Queensland Cowboys coach Todd Payten both bringing up the discrepancy in their post-match press conferences at different points this season.
“I’m not here to take anything away from Parramatta, good luck to them, but it’s about us as a club not being one of the big clubs and not getting anything [from the referees],” said Holbrook after his side’s defeat to the Parramatta Eels in round one.
“If they’re 50-50 [decisions], make them 50-50. Give us a couple, give them a couple and we’re happy.
“I’m not asking for 7-1 [penalty count] and 3-0 in the captain’s challenge.”
Holbrook is inferring that Parramatta and other teams towards the top end of the table get calls made in their favour against the weaker sides to an unfair extent, Payten is much more matter of fact with his statement.
“Titans’ head coach a couple of weeks ago made a comment, and I agree with him,” said Payten after the Cowboys loss to the Roosters in round four.
“Teams that have been up the pointy end of the competition for a while now, or have high-profile players get the benefit of the doubt too often, and that’s frustrating.
“That’s my opinion over watching footy for a long time.”
— Galileo B. Luzano (@LuzanoB) April 5, 2022
After hearing from the coaches it is now time to ask why this is happening and how do we fix it?
Some people will instantly point to this being a CONSPIRACY either against their club or for one of the competition’s heavyweights and that the NRL has told their referees to favour certain teams over others which is quite absurd and not true.
The clearest and most logical explanation for why this is happening is because referees are simply taking into account the most probable outcome of these fifty-fifty situations which isn’t necessarily the right thing to do but is an understandable thought process to undertake.
For example, let’s say the team in first place on the ladder is facing the team in 16th and a player from the team in 16th seems to have tackled a player from the team in first a little too high but it is not clear if he has.
It is so unclear that the referee just can’t lean one way or the other, so what do they do?
Taking into account that the team in 16th is one of the league’s less disciplined sides, it is more than likely that the tackle was high and the referee would then favour the team in first based on that thought process.
Does this mean the tackle was indeed high?
Of course not, but this hypothetical situation represents what is very likely the answer to why the NRL’s better teams usually get the rub of the green over their largely inferior opponents.
Moving onto how this can be fixed, the answer is simple, referees and The Bunker need to remove variables such as the place in which a team sits on the ladder and back themselves to make the right decision when faced with a close call.
This will not fix incorrect decisions being made from time to time, but will very likely see the discrepancy between the higher and lower-seeded teams in the league diminish.