PRLMO chairman Silvio Del Vecchio claimed referees boss Bernard Sutton informed him of plans to scrap the two-referee model via a phone call on Friday at 5.24pm – just six minutes before a Zoom meeting was scheduled to break the news to the whistleblowers.
“We find it absolutely outrageous that the NRL chose to announce this to our members at the same time as they issued a media release flagging a return to one referee,” Del Vecchio said.
“We have long sought a relationship with the NRL based on mutual respect and transparency. If the NRL genuinely want to restart the competition on May 28, they will need to consider a conciliatory approach towards our members moving forward.”
The NRL has run with a two-referee model ever since 2009, when the pocket referee was introduced to monitor the ruck and curb the amount of wrestling in the game. Project Apollo chief Wayne Pearce believes the introduction of a six-again rule – rather than the blowing of a penalty – will speed up the game and prevent constant ruck infringements.
However, that has done little to appease furious match officials, who are considering boycotting the third round.
“The match officials are committed to the restart of the game, but the way the NRL has announced this proposal is incredibly disrespectful,” Del Vecchio said.
“Any planned changes impacting players would surely have gone through the RLPA. The NRL ought to show the referees the same respect. We will continue to work closely with our members; they have asked us to explore our options for industrial action if it were to come to that.
“We hope to start discussions with the NRL regarding this matter as soon as possible and we will continue to work towards a positive outcome for both our members and the game.”
The NRL is seeking to slash costs after the coronavirus outbreak threatened its financial viability. While the referees are currently being paid 80 per cent of their salary, there are no guarantees beyond May 28. If the game moves towards a one-referee model, as is currently employed for Test football, the jobs of some of the 22 full-timers in the squad, as well as other casuals, could be at risk.
Roosters coach Trent Robinson, a member of the Project Apollo committee, found out about the proposal only at 4pm on Friday. The positives, Robinson said, would be the savings for the cash-strapped NRL, along with appeasing “purists”. The downside would be less eyes to police the wrestle and slowing down of the ruck.
“It got brought up at the end of the meeting about the possibility of the one referee, which is a debate that has been had … and we discussed the for and against about having one referee,” Robinson said.
“If we did go back to one referee the debate was around ‘how do we control the ruck?’ There would be one less set of eyes on the ruck. I don’t think anything has been decided as far as I know.”
As for the game now being too fast for one whistleblower to control, Robinson said: “If I had to take a bet I would keep the two referees, have a dominant ref and even to the point the second ref who looks at the ruck just gives instructions to the lead ref.
“But I also understand, and I’ve gone through it in my mind the past 24 hours, if there was one referee, ‘what should we do?’ and is this an opportunity through circumstance to trial that, and what would it mean for our game moving forward.
“Any rule change you make on the ruck will have the biggest significant change in our game. We need to be really prudent about what we do here and what it will look like.”
Manly coach Des Hasler said officials had already decided to stick with the competition points and not adopt a conference system, so rules should not be tampered with mid-season.
“And if we went to one referee it will be disastrous because there will be more wrestle and the game will become slower,” Hasler said.
“You can’t keep 10 metres and keep an eye on the ruck. The game is too fast.
“It’s called making policy on the run. We shouldn’t do it. It’s not that I’m not a fan of one referee, just don’t change it now and [rather] spend time on it during the off-season.”
Adrian Proszenko is the Chief Rugby League Reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald.
Christian covers rugby league for The Sydney Morning Herald.