Inside Rugby League: A cracking start but referees and officials take centre stage – Smith

Patrick Ah Van.
Patrick Ah Van.
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SO MUCH for rugby league’s new era.

One round into the Super League season and all talk is of those old chestnuts referees and the disciplinary system.

There were many positives from last weekend’s matches: encouraging crowds, some outstanding individual and team performances and a number of shock results.

But those weren’t what hogged the headlines. Instead, attention centred on a series of controversial decisions by the men in the middle and the fall-out from those rulings.

As opening fixtures go, Widnes Vikings’ home draw with Wigan Warriors was certainly compelling and action-packed. Wigan raced into a 16-0 lead, Widnes had a player, Patrick Ah Van, controversially sent-off and then the home side roared back to snatch an unexpected point.

Ah Van’s dismissal was one of those marginal decisions which came down to the referee’s judgement, assuming it was James Child who made the call rather than one of his many assistants and advisors.

It was a high swinging arm, but there didn’t seem to be any malice. If that is the standard for a red card this year, then there will be plenty of games which don’t finish 13-a-side.

The RFL’s match review panel this week backed-up the referee by charging Ah Van with a Grade B reckless tackle. He submitted an early guilty plea and misses tomorrow’s game at Leeds Rhinos. A yellow card would possibly have been a fairer punishment, though Widnes have sportingly refused to create a fuss.

It was at the end of the match when the real fun and games began. Widnes’ Chris Dean went over for a try between the sticks, leaving a straight-forward conversion kick to level the scores.

Wigan didn’t like it. As Rhys Hanbury celebrated, Matty Smith, the Wigan scrum-half, took a petulant kick at him. Then, as Widnes’ players reacted, not particularly aggressively, Joel Tomkins ran over and shoved Cameron Phelps to the ground.

Smith was, belatedly, sin-binned, after a conversation between touch judge and referee. No action was taken against Tomkins, but even the most ardent Wigan follower would have struggled to object if either he or Smith had been sent-off.

That’s two successive high-profile games in which Wigan players have shown the sport in a poor light, following Ben Flower’s now notorious dismissal in last year’s Grand Final.

The RFL was clever in the way that was dealt with. Almost all bans handed out by the disciplinary committee are measured in terms of matches. Instead Flower was suspended for six months, a Super League record.

That sounds severe, but much of that time was the off- or pre-season, when no games took place. In fact, Flower will miss a total of 13 matches: 10 Super League games, two in pre-season and the World Club Challenge tie against Brisbane Broncos. Not quite as draconian.

Wigan’s showdown with Brisbane is now two games away. It would be interesting to know if anybody with an in-depth knowledge of how these things work really expected either Smith or Tomkins to be prevented from playing in that one.

Smith was charged with Grade B kicking, punishable by a one to two-game suspension. He took an early guilty plea, accepted a one-match ban and hey-presto, is available to face Brisbane. As is Tomkins, who was officially cautioned rather than banned – a bizarre, yet totally predicatable outcome.

Only the match review panel know how they came to those two conclusions. According to the RFL website, Smith’s kick made “light contact”, so that’s all right then. The panel admitted Tomkins’ actions were “unnecessary”.

Whatever went on behind closed doors, the understandable perception is the punishment was tailored to suit the offenders, allowing them to play in a prestigious fixture.

So kicking or running in and tackling an opponent to the ground are not deemed serious offences. Is that really the sort of message the governing body wants to send out? New era, same old issues.