Peter FitzSimons column: NRL referees deserve better


The problem, of course, is that when you are dealing with real lives, and professional lives at that, it is surely fair to hear the refs’ side of the story?

It is not a pretty one.

Two Fridays ago at 4.24pm, by the account of Silvio Del Vecchio, the chairman of the Professional Rugby League Match Officials – basically the boss of the NRL refs’ union – he was at home in Bronte when his phone rang. It was the NRL’s boss of referees, Bernard Sutton, advising that there would a zoom call for all the refs in six minutes. At that very time, as it happened, a News Corp sports journo put out a tweet, bearing the news that they were all now told: “Hi everyone, we are going to one ref match plan.”

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Just like that? Just like that.

Del Vecchio and the referees were mortified. Over the next few hours, and ever since, Del Vecchio’s phone has run hot with referees whose blood runs cold. How could the NRL just make an announcement like that, with no consultation with them at all? How could they effectively cut their workforce in half, in such a high-handed manner?

On the Monday there was a meeting of representatives of the game’s stakeholders: players, ex-players, commentators, coaches and CEOs.

Del Vecchio was not invited, though one of his refs, Matt Cecchin, was. By his account, at least, it didn’t matter: the stakeholders were all dead set against the move anyway.

The next day, Del Vecchio was asked by the head of football, Graeme Annersley did the refs want to make a submission to the ARL Commission?

Did they ever.

During the next 48 hours, Del Vecchio worked feverishly to put the submission together, pointing out the impact on the refs collectively, focusing on the NRL’s duty of care to the players, the match officials, what is in the best interests of the fans and sponsors, how the NRL would not get remotely close to the savings they hoped for and so forth. Their submission got nowhere, their proposals were rejected, as the commission insisted on going through with its plans.

Del Vecchio speaks about the whole thing with great passion.

Rising referee Belinda Sharpe’s opportunities could be limited with the move back to one on-field official.Credit:NRL Photos

“Such a move,” he told this correspondent, “is outrageous! Our people have made life changes to do this job.”

He cites four referees who have, on the basis of the commitments made to them, upended their whole lives – including changing cities and jobs – to pursue their dreams of being NRL referees, and have been successfully doing just that. But now what?

“Instead of 16 positions every weekend, there are only eight out in the middle. So for those not in the top eight, they will be relegated to the touchline. For some it might be five years before they get back to the middle. That is not what they were promised, what they built their lives on.”

What he most resents, however, is the way it was done.

“The whole thing,” he said, was, “Slam, bam, no thank you ma’am. It’s offensive. Peter V’landys was being so dictatorial. It’s offensive.”

You mentioned that.

You get the drift: things are getting heated.

Their best hope, Del Vecchio says, lies with the Fair Work Commission, now examining the whole affair.

“We have,” he said, “an enterprise bargaining agreement, and what Mr V’landys doesn’t seem to realise is, it is enforceable. He didn’t even know it existed before he came rampaging in. He said they were going to save $3 million. Then he said $2.5 million. We showed it was half-a-million dollars. He said we have to listen to the fans, but the fans are with us, no matter what bogus poll he uses. He said it’s all about the wrestle in the tackle. We said can you show us the evidence of how only one ref will help that. We have yet to see it. The whole thing has been done without due process.”

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For the most part, the referees are copping it, probably losing the public relations battle, as the NRL eat their own and V’landys for one, keeps attacking, saying that while everyone else in the NRL is making sacrifices, the referees are the only ones who refuse to, and that they are being selfish.

Because of the campaign, Del Vecchio says his phone just keeps ringing with referees, who have a “high level of anxiety, trying to sort out their lives.”

To this little black duck it seems obvious that the only leverage they have is to go on strike, but Del Vecchio says they couldn’t, even if they wanted to.

“We will stick with our enterprise bargaining agreement,” he said, “and will go with what the Fair Work Commission says. We believe we have the law on our side.”

Stay tuned, sports fans.

Twitter: @Peter_Fitz

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