Michael Burgess is a sports writer for the Herald on Sunday.

League: Neutral refs unlikely for Cup

The international league federation wants the best refs - and they are more than likely Australians, writes Michael Burgess.

Ashley Klein and his fellow Australian officials made several calls which perplexed Kieran Foran and the Kiwis last week. Photo / Getty Images
Ashley Klein and his fellow Australian officials made several calls which perplexed Kieran Foran and the Kiwis last week. Photo / Getty Images

Despite neutral referees being non-negotiable in almost every other international sport, they are unlikely to be fixtures at this year's Rugby League World Cup.

The recent Anzac test, in which the Kiwis were on the wrong side of at least three highly contentious decisions which markedly affected the momentum of the match, revived calls for neutral officials.

As well as referee Ashley Klein, at Canberra Stadium both touch judges and one of the two video referees were Australian. New Zealand's only representative was former Warrior-turned-whistler Henry Perenara as a video referee.

Klein is an excellent referee whose credentials or professionalism - like those of his compatriots - are beyond question but having an Australian in charge of a match featuring the Kangaroos can make for a murky situation. However, the situation won't change come October and November at the World Cup.

"We understand and like the principle behind neutrality," says Rugby League International Federation chairman Scott Carter, "but we are most supportive of having the best available referee."

Because of the large pool of professional referees provided by the NRL, it is more than likely the best available will be Australian. That policy has not always been bad for the Kiwis. Klein had the whistle in the last World Cup final (and copped a post-match blast from Kangaroos coach Ricky Stuart, which led to his departure), while Tony Archer refereed the 2010 Four Nations final, won 16-12 by the Kiwis.

Many other significant New Zealand victories have involved a neutral official, including the three in the 1980s. Who could forget French referee Julian Rascagneres, who resembled Inspector Poirot in appearance and schoolmasterly manner? Englishman Steve Ganson was in charge of both New Zealand victories in 2005, including the 24-0 win in the Tri-Nations final.

By definition, referees are meant to be neutral. Football, rugby, hockey and basketball don't appoint officials from opposing nations in a match. Netball is probably the closest example to league. The Silver Ferns and Australian Diamonds are leagues ahead of the rest of the world, as are their umpires. However, these huge contests, whether world championship finals or Commonwealth Games gold medal matches, usually feature umpires from the Caribbean or England who often struggle with the pace of the game.

A 2009 study by Cambridge University and the University of London concluded there could be biased decisions in matches where the referee was from the home country of one of the competing teams.

According to the study, in the 2009 Super 14 season, the home teams won just 38 per cent of matches when the referee shared the same nationality as the opposition, but 91 per cent of matches when the referee was from the same country as the home team. In Super League, the French team won 38 per cent of games when the referee was British, but 75 per cent of the time when the referee was Australian or French.

Specifically, referees were less likely to penalise the team of their own nationality and more frequently penalise the team of a different country. For instance, in Super League, a British team received fewer cards when it played against a French team than when it played against another British team.

The timing of decisions also played a major role. Decisions in favour of the team of the referee's nationality were at the most crucial moments when the scoreline was close while the foreign team received favourable decisions in situations when they were less likely to affect the outcome.

In the past, the appointment ofleague match officials has tended to be on an ad-hoc basis. It has been dependant on agreement of the respective nations and often involved a degree of horse trading. Carter and the RLIF are trying to put more structure around the appointment of officials and rule interpretations - which tend to vary between hemispheres.

"We want to put in place a match officials appointment panel," says Carter, with an independent chairman. "This group would produce documents outlining protocols and interpretations and also assemble a squad of referees based on merit."

NZRL CEO Phil Holden says: "We need to make sure there are clear pathways in place for referees. We have that for our players and it is vital that our referees also believe they can make it to the top. New Zealand referees need to be well and truly represented at the World Cup."

There has been progress in this area in recent years, with the Holden Cup and NSWRL Cup giving New Zealand referees the chance to adjudicate in transtasman club contests.

Bringing more English referees into the NRL could be the way forward for the international game. Sometimes English referees have struggled with the pace of transtasman games. Having them in the NRL would ensure they were up to speed when called to adjudicate in the international arena.

- Herald on Sunday

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