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.
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.