KICKOFF: Get 'em onside... sort of

TOUGH GIG: Referee Matt Cecchin explains a penalty to Gareth Widdop midway through the Dragons clash with the Bulldogs last week. Picture: AAP Image

TOUGH GIG: Referee Matt Cecchin explains a penalty to Gareth Widdop midway through the Dragons clash with the Bulldogs last week. Picture: AAP Image

“Get ‘em onsiiiide!” It’s a refrain that often rings out somewhere between the opening kickoff and the first hit-up of the match.

It doesn’t stop for the ensuing 79 minutes. Normally it continues in Leagues Clubs and at pubs afterwards – “they were offside all night.”

Even before games we hear commentators and punters pleas:

“Just give us a good 10 metres, keep the sides apart and let them play footy… get ‘em onsiiiide!”

So they did. Now everyone’s filthy. 

It’s just further evidence of a game always at odds with itself.

On Kickoff’s, let’s say semi-regular, trips to beer tents around Illawarra League grounds in recent years there’s always been two things the punters spoke about – the 10 metres and the play-the-ball.

“They’ve got to tidy up the play-the-ball, it’s a shambles.” 

So they did. Now everyone’s filthy.

It’s not without precedent. For years as the scourge of wrestling has become more deeply embedded in the game. “They need to get it out of the game” they cried.

So they did. Now everyone’s filthy.

It’s true, refereeing perfection will be forever unattainable. However, in a game where grey areas are so large, being onside and getting your foot to the ball are pretty black and white directives, some might even say – ya know – the rules.

Like plenty of fans, this columnist was frustrated with the number of penalties being blown earlier in the season. 

The whistle-blowers were following a very public directive from NRL HQ of which all NRL clubs were well aware of. That they had a whole preseason to prepare for.

As the penalty counts grew, people called for refs to use the sin-bin for repeat infringements.

So they did. Now everyone’s filthy. 

CEO Todd Greenberg stood strong early on, made “no apologies” for trying to clean up the game but, as always, the squeaky wheel got the grease.

He caved and once again the game cowered in the face of opposition from coaches and certain small, yet painfully vocal, sections of the media.

"I wouldn't say we're going to soften, we're absolutely on the right path," Greenberg said in his presser on Tuesday.

"There has been a tendency for referees to continue to nitpick so we have to find the balance. I don't want referees looking for penalties, I want them to continue to police those areas.”

How on earth are referees supposed to officiate with such a contradictory and vague directive? “Get ‘em onsiiiide… sort of.”

It’s like telling a boxer “go for the knockout… just don’t hurt anybody.” In the end, the referees will cop the blame from fans, media and coaches. 

People have tried to draw a false dichotomy between the five penalties blown in State of Origin I to what we see at club level. 

Repeat sets are so important in Origin that players do all they can to avoid giving them away. If anything, it shows what type of discipline players are capable of

You can bet Brad Fittler and Kevin Walters didn’t waste  time in camp coaching players how to exploit refereeing interpretations.

Club coaches spend whole preseasons, and then 26 rounds of the season, doing just that. 

That’s what's been lost, or at least glossed over. Should not some of the responsibility rest with players and coaches?

Dragons prop James Graham gave a refreshing response when asked that question this week. 

“We all have a responsibility to make [consistency] happen, players, coaches, media, referees,” he said.

“You can make an argument to say it’s frustrating to watch, but if you go back 12 months, two years, the conversations around the game are people were sick of things going unpenalised. 

“If you look back and say teams were constantly offside, teams were holding on too long it was ‘ruining the game’. Now referees are penalising it and it’s ruining the game.

“One thing I’m happy to say is I don’t begrudge the job referees have to do. It’s a very difficult job.”

If only their bosses weren’t making it tougher. 

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