As young blokes, we didn’t really care who our referee was.
They were all pretty much the same. Except for old Charlie.
I reckon he’d been around when Clive Churchill was a boy. It’s probably being unfair to say that others his vintage were getting around on walkers. But he knew plenty of short cuts. And he loved the game.
When I was 13, he told me something that I remembered for the rest of my highly uneventful career. I’d scored a try, and threw the ball away to celebrate.
The old boy, when he’d caught up with us, pointed to the spot. And then took me aside.
‘Son, always pick the ball up. You might never score another one’. That was the last time I threw a ball away.
I thought of Charlie, and others like him, as I watched the NRL horror show unfold last Friday night.
My beloved Cowboys bundled out of the comp, thanks to incompetence on a grand level.
Two breath-taking decisions by officials, that were simply wrong. Everyone else knew it.
Forget the jokers fumbling their way through 80 minutes in the video replay room. As hopeless as they all are, there’s a bigger problem here.
Referees have lost the ability to make decisions.
They are now trained to ask someone else. Constantly. Don’t take the chance of making a mistake.
I’ve had dealings with dozens of whistle-blowers over three decades. Some better than others. All with a few key qualities.
They enjoyed being part of the game. They had no desire to be loved. And they had the utmost confidence in their ability to make a call.
Out there on their own. No second referee. No video replays. Just one man, two eyes, and a whistle.
They would rule on what was in front of them. Most of the time they’d get it right. When they didn’t, we’d blow up for a bit, and then move on.
A good mate in Bundaberg became one of Queensland’s best referees. Rob was cool as a cucumber, fit, with an amazing knowledge of the rules.
He cost me a grand final one year. Penalised us for an obstruction on the try line. I could have killed him. I still disagree with him. But I respect him for having the courage to make the decision.
Rob also played his part in the funniest game I was ever involved in. The day one of our players went into battle without his eyebrows.
They’d been hacked from him the night before by a teammate with a rusty razor. Part of his 21st birthday celebrations.
For reasons still unknown, he took to the field with fake eyebrows, drawn on with thick black texta in the dressing room. I’m not making this up.
For the entire game, trainers from both teams aimed their water bottles at the now running black markings.
Late in the game, with our boys up by a cricket score, referee Rob penalised the birthday boy, who happened to be one of his friends.
We could detect no breach of the rules. The skipper asked what had been done wrong. With a straight face, Rob explained. ‘Those painted eyebrows have officially become dangerous. Straighten them up or next time you’re off.’
Both teams collapsed in fits of laughter. Except the smudged 21-year-old.
The problems facing the game’s administrators today are no laughing matter. And while others are baying for blood, I actually feel for the refs.
They’re being taken in the wrong direction. Urged not to use a referee’s number one asset. Instinct.
Remember, these blokes have all come through the ranks. From juniors and bush leagues, where there’s no one else to make the call. No help. No videos.
They achieve their dream of making it into the big time, and suddenly they’re trained NOT to make a decision. If it’s important, ask someone else. It’s a behaviour that’s habit-forming. The less big calls you make, the less big calls you make.
If the ruling that killed off the Cowboys had been made in Cairns, or Ipswich, or Campbelltown, or Dapto, the ref would have dealt with it on the spot. Guided by years of involvement in the game.
And you know what? I reckon any of those part-time decision makers would have got it right. They make those calls every weekend. Bread and butter stuff.
The refs I’ve known over the years always had plenty of confidence in their own ability. They actually enjoyed being involved in the key plays.
As a fan, I’d accept them getting one wrong every now and then, if it meant they went back to making decisions themselves.
It would also speed up the game. End those mind-numbing breaks, where two blokes with coloured wigs and big red noses look at 20 replays. Slowly.
Let’s go back to the future. One referee. Touch judges that actually contribute. Video replays used sparingly. Decisions, from the bloke with the whistle.
It couldn’t make things any worse than they are now. They could even bring old Charlie back. He’d make the big calls. Just as soon as he caught up.