The Cumberland Throw

From The Stands – May 15, 2023: Blurred Lines

There is nothing blurred about the form of the Eels. The 2023 season has been a step backwards for a team that has seemingly forgotten how to win.

I loved Parra’s ride to the Grand final last year. The four years since 2019 has been full of enjoyment, from the first match at the new stadium and the home finals match against the Broncos that year, through to being in the big end of season games each season. 

But there is no hiding that there has been little to cheer about in 2023. The season may not be over but with every loss the road gets very much harder. It’s hard to watch and we have to be honest when reflecting on the costly mistakes that have been made by players, coaches and the football department. It is their job to fix what they can this year and it is absolutely their responsibility to make sure that the obvious shortcomings in our playing squad are rectified for 2024.

It really annoys me that there are still spots to be filled in our squad for 2023. What is going on there! There were obvious gaps before the season started that have been further spotlighted by injuries as the season has progressed.

This, coupled with some recruits who have not performed as hoped, has meant a much weaker depth to the Eels squad. An honest reflection as to how and why this happened is most definitely needed.


Then we have the mainstays of the team. Gutho, Moses, and Junior are our leaders. Players of their calibre have not forgotten how to play but they must step up and get the others to follow. It’s not a question of effort, but they would know that individually, their seasons have featured critical errors and fluctuating form.  

There are two non-negotiables needed from the squad this week; have a red hot crack and stay unified. Nothing good will come from turning on each other. It is most important that our on field leaders do just this no matter how frustrated they become with their own mistakes or mistakes by others.

However, for all of the aspects of winning a game of football that our Eels can control and haven’t, there are things which no team can control. We’ve all seen it year on year, but in 2023 surely enough is enough.

I’m referring to the blurred lines of rugby league rules.

I very rarely agree with Ricky Stuart but he was 100% right to point out the very obvious and highly detrimental inconsistencies being played out weekly by match officials.

I don’t place all the blame at the feet of referees, but I get frustrated when I hear people say there will always be inconsistencies. That is a cop out. We have a rule book not a compilation of suggestions or management tips.

There are highly paid people at NRL HQ who oversee the match officials. Graham Annesley fronts up to the media every week to explain decisions. How about they get to work on achieving some level of clarity around what we can expect from referees each week?

Here’s a simple suggestion. If an NRL match official interprets the rules in a way that is consistently inconsistent with how other referees or those at NRL headquarters interpret them, they should be helped to get it right. If they can’t or won’t improve, they should not be appointed to first grade fixtures.

We punish players and clubs that don’t adhere to rules, with even heavier punishments for repeat offenders. Yet somehow it is acceptable for some referees to have vastly different interpretations of things such as hip drop tackles, high shots or ruck interference. I repeat, not minor differences, but vastly different interpretations to the point that they are completely wrong and proven to be so when the match is reviewed.

When players are erroneously dispatched to the sin bin, or points are scored following incorrect penalties, these mistakes are actually determining the results of matches and therefore table placings.

The NRL cannot hide. The buck stops with them. You only have to put yourself through one of the weekly post round briefings to see that the NRL keep stats on almost every aspect of the game. They would have stats on how certain referees interpret the ruck, even how it might relate to particular teams. If they don’t, they should!

Do they keep stats on the where and when of penalties and six again calls? I dare say that would make for interesting reading. A set restart on the first tackle is vastly different to one given on the fourth or fifth. We have to believe that the NRL is aware of that, after all they made the adjustment to the rule because teams were deliberately infringing on early tackles after kicks. 

It’s been raised in the past by other coaches and clubs, that certain referees appear to have a problem with the way particular clubs play their football. Trent Robinson has pointed the finger at Ben Cummins a number of times.

From Parra’s point of view, Grant Atkins fits into that category. He finds fault in the way the Eels play. This is in no way questioning of his integrity, rather the way he sees the rules is different to many other officials.

Atkins and Gutho

When BA addressed Saturday’s 10-3 penalty count, it marked the first time in his ten years of coaching the Eels that he has pointed the finger at refereeing in a press conference. As he said, the Eels are the best disciplined team in the competition, being the least penalised team in 2022, and sitting second for penalties conceded going into round 11 with an average of less than five penalties conceded per game. For some reason, Mr Atkins found plenty wrong against the Raiders. He has done so in the past, and the Eels have a statistically significant losing record when he officiates – 25 losses from 41 games.

Even when the Eels have won matches under him he has still found much fault. Case in point round 24 last year when the Eels belted the Broncos 53-6. A quick overview of the stats shows the Eels had 62% possession with almost 12 minutes more with the ball and over 1000 more metres. The Eels were required to do minimal defending against a team barely making any headway in attack, yet still conceded 5 penalties – a number more than their match average. Yes, the Broncos conceded more penalties (8) but he still found significant fault from the Eels in the minimal defending.

The tale of penalties is not just being penalised, it’s also not receiving penalties or six again calls when you should. How frustrating is it when your team is called for slowing the ruck, yet you witness the opposition go unpunished for far worse! Or to have a situation where barely a ruck infringement is called for either team, simply because your team doesn’t slow up the ruck.

We know that the Eels concede quick play the ball speeds to opponents every week, even clearing the ruck quickly after a line break. It’s part of the coach’s goal to be the best disciplined team in the NRL. It’s there for all to read in the average play the ball speeds. Look at last weekend. The Eels average play the ball speed was 4.03 seconds. The Raiders was 3.21 seconds. Which of the two teams might have been slowing the ruck? Those sorts of numbers are repeated in every Eels match.

If you went through each club, many would have a referee who simply does not suit their style. Should that be acceptable?

The referees aren’t robots. They will make mistakes, just as the players or coaches do. But their job should be made easier by removing the blurred lines.

Match officials should be expected to apply rules, not suggestions. If any rule isn’t clear, then the NRL needs to ensure that any confusion is removed. Then if there are referees that can’t apply the rules to an acceptable standard, they need to be held accountable – just as players who don’t follow rules are held accountable.

It should not matter which referee is in charge, basics like 10 metres, ruck speed, and the use of the sin bin should be close to universal.

But whilst we can give an element of leeway for an occasional error for the on-field officials, there should be almost no margin for error on the basics for bunker officials. Remember, these officials are meant to be limited as to when they can impose themselves in a match.

The same bunker official who interrupted play to give a game changing penalty against Bailey Simonsson for a hip drop tackle, one for which there was no charge, is the same person who found no fault after reviewing the Payne Haas tackle on RCG. That’s despite having ample time to look at the tackle and witness the damage caused. No sin bin. Not even a penalty! Yet it was a grade 2 charge when it came to the official match review.

It pains a rusted on Eels supporter like me to admit that Ricky Stuart has been right to level his criticisms. But any criticism, be it official or otherwise, from clubs, coaches, media or supporters means nothing when the NRL has created a situation where rules are merely blurred lines.



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23 thoughts on “From The Stands – May 15, 2023: Blurred Lines

  1. Anonymous

    It’s interesting that Buzz Rothfield commented that the main problem with the Eels stems from poor recruitment over the past 2 years. He said that if you lose 6 current NRL players, they should be replaced with equal quality and that hasn’t been the case at Parra,the new recruits are well below what left the club.

    That coupled with continuing with a roster short of numbers is definitely an issue. The question is does this fall solely on the recruitment committee, as they do seem to be slow in negotiations, and wouldn’t it be sensible for a club with our strengths to actually sign an elite player or 2. That hasn’t happened for some time as we seem to search for bargains that can be elevated into better players (then lost as superior offers are made).

    We hear little from our Head of Football or CEO on these issues. Moses apparently hasn’t signed for instance and still no comment from the club.

    Rothfield said in closing on Monday on radio, BA hasn’t had the roster to improve results after the player losses and it’s harsh to judge him until he has similar resources as previously.

    1. sixties

      I addition to the forwards lost from last season, Lane will miss more than half the season, Reg is missing an extended period, Matto has missed four games, Junior has missed two and lost form. It is the worst possibly scenario to follow up the loss of players.

      1. Anonymous

        The underwhelming almost panic but of Hodgson is a symptom of the issue, not helped by his knee injury after signing. However, his onfield contribution is not good as evidenced by the points differentials when compared to when Hands takes over .

        Most fans find it difficult to understand how Hodgson is playing beyond a spell of 20 minutes as his contribution really suffers after that time.

        1. sixties

          Let’s be careful about piling onto Hodgson. He has had an extremely ordinary start to the season, but is definitely on an upward trajectory over the last two matches. In fact, he was quite good against his old team and the 18 points scored either side of half time had nothing to do with him. From a points and results perspective this season, it’s probably just as relevant to point towards tries scored from Gutho intercepts, his time in the sin bin or not being able to cover kicks to the in-goal. But then that would be ignoring all of his positive contributions. I have said that I think BA has got some of the minutes played wrong earlier this season, but if Hodgo’s form is on the improve, it achieves nothing to blame him for the last two losses.

          1. BDon

            Agree sixties. He played a safe and sound hand on Saturday, but if you add his early season form to your list, it’s more lead in our saddlebag.If ever we wanted him to lift a bit more, this week would be perfect.

  2. Ray

    G’day 60s, Love your podcasts and listen to them all. I’ve just read your comments in relation to recruitment. I honestly believe that this problem has been highlighted by our lack of recruits particularly in our front row. Brad Arthur has been lucky with injuries in the last couple of years. Unfortunately this year, his luck has run out, this matching his poor recruitment which has been diabolical to say the least, they are lucky to be reserve graders, the lack of communication from the club to the fans in relation to injury reports player retention top 30 squads, New South Wales cup squads and many more things that have really pissed me off. We still have 2 squad members to be filled once again, no information at all, I don’t like the direction which the club is going in a part of me wants Brad gone and the other part not nothing will change. He does have his favourites, blatantly obvious. I don’t blame Jake Arthur at all I blame his dad he’s not up to 1st grade at this stage career haze dunster no comment., as for Josh Hodgson he was a panic bye after losing Mahoney he has been dreadful and he’s refusal to look outside the square a little bit will be his biggest let down. Unfortunately we’re gonna have a coach who will be here for 12 years and won nothing that has to be a record. I love to hear your reply cheers a very disgruntled Parramatta fanatic !!!

    1. sixties

      Hi Ray, and thanks for being a listener. This is Shelley’s column. I edit and publish this column which she emails to me. I neglected to set her as the author when I published it so I apologise for the confusion about the author – now corrected.
      Is BA the person doing the recruitment or choosing to have an incomplete roster? He is part of a committee and like all coaches gives his opinions on who he could work with or who he’d like the club to target. As I understand it he doesn’t get involved in negotiations or the money offered other than giving an opinion. I reckon he wouldn’t be happy with a limited roster. No coach would be.
      Luck with injuries in past years? Maybe with our middles but how about having losing all the outside backs prior to the 2020 final vs Souths? All three dummy halves at the end of 2021 and having to use Ray Stone there? What about losing all of those outside backs to injury in early 2022?
      The Eels erred in recruitment and retention going into 2023 by having an incomplete roster knowing that they would be without at least three players – Simonsson, Dunster and Matto, knowing that they would be moving Nathan Brown on, and then losing Lane for the extended period.
      I will be taking an extended dive into the topic soon.

    2. Shelley

      Ray I have very similar views on the front row. We are missing players like Marata and while I understand it is hard to replace a player like Marata who was probably worth much more as compared to what he got paid our style requires strong go forward. We also lost players like Opacic who when he played made good metres running from dummy halve.
      To me speed/ size out wide and a genuine front rower are much needed.

  3. R.C.

    I do think the issue with the refs is their development and training. Firstly, no tip sheets. This makes a ref look for particular things during a game, rather than officiate to the merits of the game. Game plans can change. A ref should not be assuming they know how a game will go.
    Secondly, any up and coming ref with a future should have to go to the bush for a year or two and learn their craft. Learn how to officiate a game. No technology etc. Officiate by feel of the game.
    The bunker. There is no consistency. They pick and choose when to get involved. They pick and choose what constitutes a high tackle, hip drop etc. Nothing more frustrating than watching the bunker overturn a 20m restart into a dropout, but not doing it the next time it should happen. Either do it for all, or do it for none.
    Anyway, that’s my 2 cents

    1. sixties

      And well said too RC! That idea about experience in the country is interesting. They do spend time coming through the ranks in lower grades, and without technology, but I reckon that time away would also be beneficial.

    2. Shelley

      Brilliantly said. I am convinced that in many ways the referees in the bunker have far too much say. There is no accountability, it is all about saving face. G Sutton got dropped from the bunker this week because after having time to watch replays he made mistakes yet he is not dropped from being an infield ref, a job that requires him to made decisions quickly on rules the same rules he cannot get right with the benefit of replay.

      His demotion this week highlights the problem. There is no accountability it is only window dressing to make it look like they are doing something.

  4. Graz

    I’ve posted some comments on TCT and on some other outlets, being totally aware not to accuse any official of any deliberate wrongdoing. But it is true that supporters of various clubs take a note of officiating appointments for their teams games. Many times I’ve heard “well we can’t win this week with that ref”, as that is just how many fans from different clubs react. Rightly or wrongly. This is without doubt not good for the game. I myself have closely watched how refs -and I might add, touchies- officiate at Eels games, especially the games I attend (and that is most of them). Part of the problem with touchies is that they are not trained specifically for their job. Most are refs, and it seems they are mentally reffing the game and neglecting their true job that game (who can forget the “mile forward pass” let go by touchie right in front of him on half time at Eels last home game. As the touchie was scooting down field the ref eventually blew the whistle). It is a fact of life that not only are things to be done properly, but perceived to be done properly. The NRL and their ref depts just seemingly scoff at the fans, undoubtedly thinking all fans are biased. NRL putting heads in the sand won’t solve the problem. I suggest that this post by Shelley be read by all appropriate NRL depts. P.S. it is not the refs job to encourage captains to challenge. Often see it early in the game and any unsuccessful challenge seemingly takes some pressure off the ref . “Do you want to challenge?” should not be heard from officials. Only “I will challenge” from the captain.

  5. Brett Allen

    But you’re wrong 60’s, 95% of the rules of the game are guidelines, by their very nature they can never be black and white. The problem is the NRL & its referees don’t understand why a particular rule exists and they needlessly blow penalties for minor infractions that are best not called. The game is at its best when you let the players figure it out. Only blow the whistle for clear & undeniable infractions where the offending team has gained an unearned advantage as a result.

    1. sixties

      This is not my column Brett. I apologised above for not setting Shelley as the author when I published her post. Now corrected.
      But Brett, that is blatantly not true. 95% of the rules are not guidelines. There is no shortage of black and white.

      1. Brett Allen

        No they actually aren’t. The only rules that are black and white are the ones involving a painted line. It’s the need for absolutes that actually causes the problems. Every other rule is best left to referee discretion. The problem is that we have had the NRL impose absolutes, the current example being hip drop tackles, which causes the absurd scenarios we’ve seen recently.

        1. sixties

          I completely disagree here Brett, from your takes on what the rules actually say because they are nearly all black and white through to them being best left to discretion. Where we have always had considerable issues is when a rule has been allowed to slide and then the NRL has to resort to clampdowns – eg play the ball, kick offs, line drop outs. As for discretion, the part of the game where it is arguably more discretionary than anywhere else is the obstruction rule – need I say more!

          1. Gibbo

            I actually asked phil gould once wether it was still illegal for the marker to place his hands on the man playing the ball , yep never been changed he said and never used , so illegal still remains the critical word brett !!!!

  6. Sec50

    An extremely cogent article Shelley and I for one concur with what you have opined. Most concerning is the lack of direction and communication from the top. Is there little information because there is indeed nothing happening with things football and making our team better. I watched our NSW Cup side play a few weeks ago and it was a lamentable watch. How does our club have such an ordinary Cup side if not for the extremely poor retention and recruitment of those in charge. Or should I say non-recruitment. Why has our NRL side regressed so badly if not for serious inadequacies with our coaches. The persons responsible need to take a long hard look at their inept performances and do something about it or move on – or be moved.
    Thanks for your brilliant discussion Shelley.

  7. BDon

    Well said Shelley. I’ve learned something over past week or two, that teams are rated on discipline which is formally recognised in
    communications, and likely that referees hold pre-formed opinions on teams. You wouldn’t have to study psychology to expect that the least penalised team/s just might attract the nit picking, technically-bent expert looking to display their knowledge. I usually watch games for all their micro as well as macro moments, it’s just that RL is one of my major passions so I grab the lot…some games right in front of my micro watching eyes a penalty or 6 Again occurs and I have not noticed any infringement that would even remotely advantage the perpetrator, these things are technically-based non events and are a blot on the game.
    Two things, amongst many, that I will always remember in recent times:
    1) Ben Cummins seemed to have an ‘Eels focus’, funny, when Jarryd Hayne left, the focus went away too.Hayne yelled at refs too much for me.
    2) How the touchie let the Penrith trainer stop the finals game in 2021 totally against the rules and protocols was as bad as officiating can get. Nothing nit picking about that one, just wrong and in an Eels game.

    1. Milo

      Good points here and I also believe we as a club have been too quiet in not saying anything. Call them out for me, as it’s costing us games / which is money too.
      Refs have been terrible for over a decade – it’s the way they ‘manage’ games and not police. Not to dissimilar to the police force oops service.
      Our retention is another story…,I’d like to see who is in charge of what…

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