NRL refereeing consistency is a pipe dream but that’s OK

Victor Radley of the Roosters ripped off a head-high tackle and was sent to the sin bin for 10 minutes. Latrell Mitchell hit a man late with an elbow and was put on report. And Bulldogs forward Jack Hetherington threw out an arm and pulled off a garden variety “coat-hanger” tackle and was sent off.

Three separate incidents, three different rulings by referees on the spot or by the Bunker over the course of round six in the NRL. Move along, nothing more to see here, right? Well, apparently not. Because according to rugby league fans – and it appears equal parts pundits and punters – this is too confusing and too ambiguous. Because, apparently, people would like all head-high tackles dealt with exactly the same.

Following Hetherington’s dismissal, Fox League commentator Andrew Voss spoke for many when he said: “I don’t think bunker, referee and match-review committee are all on the same page at the moment. I don’t think we know when there’s a headshot. Do you stay on? Are you sin-binned? Or are you sent off? It’s an absolute roll of the dice and pick an option out of the hat.”

Voss is a seasoned broadcaster and is so unashamedly a fan of rugby league that he has a show called “The Fan”. That’s not to knock Voss, but what does he want authorities to do? Have a blanket rule for a head-high tackle? Have a catch-all sentence devoid of nuance, subjectivity and severity of incident?

We cannot ask different referees to make the same decision on different incidents, because the incidents are different, the referees and players are different, and each game is not officiated by the same all-seeing robot.

There’s a word that continues to pop up – even Phil “Buzz” Rothfield, grizzled veteran of a thousand judiciary hearings, said it the other day – and that word is “consistency”. It’s something that league fans have craved in adjudication since time immemorial. And for that long – perhaps longer – they have not had it. And nor will they ever have it. Consistency is impossible, a pipe dream.

Consider, again, the three incidents that sparked the calls. They were three different points of contact by different players adjudged differently by different referees. Some on field, some in the bunker. Some might say vive la différence, but league fans apparently want referees, match review and bunker “on the same page” with every decision. To make things neat? Easier to understand? Less “messy”? It’s difficult to say.

What’s wrong with some players being sent off and some not, based on a referee’s call or one from a person in the bunker? You can’t have “consistency” in head-high tackle decisions unless you rule on them all the same. And what’s that? Send everyone off. Leave everyone on? You do if you want every head high tackle adjudged consistently – by which people mean “uniformly” – regardless of the referee’s subjective adjudication in real-time.

Who, actually, when they think about it, wants that? For down that path lies madness. Or at least a thing that drives me mad, which is the uniformity of decisions when a ball goes to ground, for instance. For there are no longer knock-backs, there are only knock-ons. A player could throw it backwards over his head, it’s knock-on. Doesn’t matter the rule states the ball has to travel “towards the opponent’s dead ball line”. If it hits the deck it’s ruled knock-on. Because consistency. Doesn’t matter it’s wrong. As long as it’s consistently wrong. Wrong for everyone.

One referee told Guardian Australia: “Rugby league has so many grey areas and the game is consistent in being inconsistent. The game needs referees to be inconsistent. We rule on and judge things differently in different field positions, different times of the game and different game situations. The game expects referees to be consistently inconsistent.”

Another referee said: “I agree it’s an imperfect system. But I agree with Andrew Voss that referees and judiciary are not on same page in dealing with foul play. Needs more direction from NRL HQ.”

But what direction? A uniform decree about head-high tackles? Were every head-high tackle adjudged the same, you’d have every player sent off or binned, regardless of the (subjective) severity of the incident. If you demand consistency-uniformity there can be no nuance, no subjectivity. Because that would be inconsistent. And that, apparently, is bad.

But it is not bad. Inconsistency is OK. Vive la différence. Inconsistency gives the game – and life – colour. If it were always one way the game would be bland. The only consistency a game as harum-scarum and pinball-fast as rugby league can hope for is that referees consistently make the call on the spot to the best of their ability. And that is not the worst thing.