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Not much grandeur at the grand finals

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Hi-tech controversial umpiring has cast shadows over both the AFL and NRL grand finals (Screenshots via Youtube)

In sports across the board, belief is getting routinely side-lined in the blur of hi-tech spectacle and big money. Media editor Dr Lee Duffield reports.

POOR OLD supporters of the Greater Western Sydney Giants optimistically went to their eight-year-old team’s first-ever AFL Grand Final, on 28 September, in Melbourne.

To get there, the Giants had battled through suspensions (more common than ever in a time of high pressure and eagle-eye surveillance) and injuries (blighting every team against more demanding contests and fitness standards year-in, year-out). They had rolled the favourites, Collingwood, against a stadium stacked with Magpies “off-field players”.

But one more team of old-time favourites waiting at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, the Richmond Tigers – revved up for their Grand Final victory number 12 – ended the romance when the great day came.

GWS “AMBUSHED … BEATEN DOWN”

The Australian Football League itself, in its summary of the day was merciless about the thrashing: 17 goals, 12 behinds, (114 points) to 3.7 (25):

Probably best to look away, Giants fans. Hopes were high for a tough contest when Giants star Jeremy Cameron slotted the first goal after 20 minutes, before Richmond blew the game apart with the next 11 goals.

 

The 89-point margin was the third-biggest in Grand Finals … Percentage-wise, the Tigers produced the most dominant performance in Grand Final history, their total being four-and-a-half times bigger than the Giants'.

Giants fans could keep on looking away as news media across the board kept retailing the full horror, in stories like this:

'The Richmond Tigers absolutely ambushed the GWS Giants with a record beat down in the Grand Final. The Giants, a side still in their infancy, were monstered by the Tigers with the lowest losing score in a grand final since 1960.'

“HOW THE FAVOURITE BEAT US”

In Sydney, home of Rugby League, it was double-edged disappointment for the underdogs on 6 October. Canberra Raiders fans – willing their first premiership since 1994, a fourth – occupied most of the commodious ANZ Stadium but were doomed to see a defeat - born of a debacle in the referring.

As in the AFL, one of two big-name favourites, the Melbourne Storm, had stumbled in the final stages. The other, the Sydney City Roosters, were there to get their back-to-back premiership from 2018 – number 15 for all-time – which they achieved, in a right mess.

Just for the record, in a hard game, with nine minutes to play, scores 8-8, Raiders attacking, they kicked — the referee ruled they had regained possession of the ball and ordered a further six tackles. Then he heard from the other referee and touch judge he’d made a mistake, so he ordered a hand-over to the Roosters. He declared it four times, in the uproar the Raiders did not hear it, scrambling to get back into position, they could not stop Roosters getting through their right wing, to score the winning try.

Could the referee have intermittently stopped play at the point of realising his error? Is it so that under the rules he was not empowered to make the change, as came to be argued in the media post mortems?

FOUL PLAY?

Said David Polkinghorne in the Sydney Morning Herald:

‘The referee judges on matters of fact and shall not subsequently alter those judgments", the rule states. He may cancel any decision made if prior foul play of which he had no knowledge is reported to him by a touch judge...

 

[Referee Ben] Cummins changed his call from six again to last tackle mid-play after a Jack Wighton (Raiders) bomb bounced backwards off Bailey Simonsson's (Raiders) shoulder in a contest for the ball with Roosters fullback James Tedesco in the 71st minute.

 

Raiders hooker Josh Hodgson gathered the ball as Cummins waved six again, thinking it had come off Tedesco. He then changed that call to last tackle on the advice of his fellow officials and Wighton was forced to hand the ball to the Roosters when he thought he had a fresh set of six. The Roosters were handed possession and scored the premiership-winning try off the next set.

The final score was 14-8.

SO WHAT?

Leaving aside the heart-break for minnows or smaller, “lesser” clubs and their supporters, the breaking of dreams in elite sport can be measured off in dollars.

Some estimates at the end of the grand finals season show that as in any business, things need to be got exactly right, purely and simply because of how much is at stake. Plus, who wants unequal contests at that level— or a game stuffed up by officials on the field?

Channel Nine – broadcasters of the National Rugby League – worked out that 20,000 interstate visitors for the Grand Final would bring an economic impact of $17 million into the New South Wales economy, and spending overall for the event would run to $30-million.

For the AFL, the Grand Final would earn almost $50 million for the Victorian economy. Some $48.5 million would be spent on tickets for the ground and total net-economic contribution of all AFL matches to host cities was $700 million, including nearly $340 million just for Melbourne.

RULES FOR REFS

Referees have their own effective assessment and discipline procedures and can depend on a century-old tradition of reverence for what the referee decides. Yet all that happens now on-field is routinely caught and replayed by several cameras, unprecedentedly more probing, easily turned around, managed — and made public. It is a tool for transparent and fair monitoring.

Will it help to refine performance indicators, that may assist the refs to review their work, and definitely identify the most dependable? Some might see that as nasty surveillance aping what goes on in corporations. Others might consider it worth a try, to avoid totally unsatisfactory scenes like the break-down in the 2019 NRL Grand Final.

HOWZAT?!

One month ago, the Ashes cricket series wound up with similar questioning going on about the umpiring record.

Off-field third umpires using replay technologies (like Snick-o-Meter and Hot Spot, Ball Spin RPM or Hawkeye) have been routinely over-turning umpiring decisions. This has raised the question: has this elite international sport been running for centuries on wholesale wrong decisions?

One obvious factor is fatigue where umpires, in summer, often enough past the average age of players, stay on the field, concentrating, throughout the game. The players get “rested” as they alternate between innings. Why should, or should not this game and many others overdo the nostrum that the “umpire is always right”?

The commentator Kerry O’Keefe has joined in calls for reform including the idea of rotating umpires during a game.

As the West Australian reports, it could take the game on to a new, and better pathway:

"... Rotating umpires each day in Test matches will ease fatigue and improve the standard of decision making." The former Test legspinner’s suggestion comes after Australia’s opening Ashes Test win at Edgbaston was marred by the number of incorrect decisions made by the umpires in the middle. Joel Wilson and veteran Aleem Dar had a combined ten decisions overturned, with the former equalling the record (eight) set by India’s Sundaram Ravi and Sri Lanka’s Kumar Dharmasena.

 

"Umpire tiredness is a factor. Why don’t we pick four umpires and rotate them?" O'Keefe said.

 

"The players get tired late in the day ... and these guys (umpires) are making errors. Get them off the pitch after an hour-and-a-half and put them in front of the (DRS) screen," he told Fox Sports.

Media editor Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political journalist and academic.

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