New NRL referees boss Bernard Sutton has vowed to maintain the rage and crackdown on errant play-the-balls right throughout 2018 despite an anticipated influx of both ruck and offside penalties across the first month of the Telstra Premiership.
In a wide-ranging interview with NRL.com, Sutton declared his 19-man strong officiating squad would set a new benchmark for fitness among the game’s whistleblowers having lost on average five kilos each across the summer, while also maintaining his brothers Gerard and Chris will receive no favours at weekly selection meetings he is involved in.
Talking through several rule and enforcement changes on the eve of round one, Sutton stressed that the promised policing of play-the-balls would not go the way of the last pre-season edict in 2016, when Todd Greenberg declared anything but a “genuine attempt to play the ball” would be penalised.
That crackdown did not have the effect desired given it remains an issue worth addressing two years on, but Sutton is bullish around the improvement already made by attacking players across the 2018 pre-season.
Even with a flow-on effect of more 10-metre offside penalties being awarded as a result of slightly slower play-the-balls, Sutton insists the hard line stance is essential to maintaining the integrity of one of rugby league’s most basic facets.
“I don’t refer to it as a blitz, because a blitz lasts for a couple of weeks,” Sutton told NRL.com.
“This is something we’re looking for a sustained approach with.
“We’ve seen through the trials that there has been a number of penalties against ball-carriers for incorrect play-the-balls and that has improved across the trials and we’ve been in constant contact with coaches around that.
“What we have noticed, because players are making that attempt to play the ball with their feet, it has slowed the play-the-ball slightly. The impact of that is the defensive line has tended to move up early.
“Through the trials it’s resulted in some increased penalties in that area, but if that’s what we need to do to maintain the appropriate standards then that’s the path we will go down.
“It’s something we’re going to maintain throughout the season, we won’t be dropping off on it and we’ve spoken with the coaches around this.”
Other key changes in 2018 will see defenders allowed to strip the ball if they are the only player involved in a tackle at the time, increased use of the shot clock and the sin bin used in instances of foul play that aren’t deemed worthy of a send off.
The last rule change will see referees consider whether a player is injured in an act of foul play and how likely they are to return, such as the heavy shot on Billy Slater that saw him knocked out of a Storm-Raiders game last year by Sia Soliola, with the Canberra forward playing out the match before being suspended for five weeks afterwards.
Sutton stressed that encouraging officials to consider the 10-minute sin bin – which has more than doubled in use across the past two seasons – for foul play would not see players ‘staying down’ in a bid to get an opposition marched.
“(The sin bin rule change) is there now to ensure the team who has the foul act against them, isn’t disadvantaged through that.
“We’ve got to determine that the foul play is actually reportable. The reportable offence is still the same standard as it has been in previous seasons.
“If a player does lay down, then he faces the risk of having to go off for a HIA so there’s a couple of deterrents to prevent players from laying down.”
Working alongside former South Sydney Rabbitohs coach Michael Maguire, now the referees’ high performance boss, Sutton has upped his squad’s pre-season physical workload by almost 20 per cent.
“On average they’ve lost five kilos per person,” Sutton said of his elite, full-time squad.
“To get the guys into better positions to make better decisions. That’s been the crux of our focus to this point, and we’re looking forward to seeing that transfer onto the field this weekend.”
Taking charge from Tony Archer, who moves into a general manager role that oversees officiating across a whole of game level, Sutton has addressed suggestions of low morale and favouritism within the referees ranks.
Sutton will sit on a four-man panel including Maguire, former whistleblowers Russell Smith and Steve Carroll that determines match allocations each week, while a leadership group has also been re-implemented under Sutton’s watch.
Brother Gerard is likely to be in contention for the biggest games of 2018 after refereeing the grand final and World Cup decider last year, but Bernard insists he is comfortable ruling on he and Chris in weekly selection meetings.
“I’ve had a conversation, a pretty frank conversation with them when I first took the job and said this is a possibility for me,” Sutton said.
“It’s obviously going to mean that our relationship changes a little bit while I’m in this job and they’re understanding of that.
“I’ve also been pretty up front with the squad. One of the first sessions we did, I sat down with the squad and I said ‘this is one of my concerns, how do you feel about it?’
“To a man they were all very good about it. It’s no different to a number of NRL coaches who have had sons in first grade teams and I don’t look at myself any different to that.”