In a shock to no one that has been paying attention to his “management” style, NRL boss Peter V’Landys has undermined his own success in his ham-fisted approach to changing refereeing. Whether or not you think one referee or two is better, V’Landys has failed on both logic and process to make the case for change. V’Landys will not doubt achieve his desired ends, but the means will undermine their long term success.
The decision to move to one referee has been a pet project of V’Landys. He flagged this as something he wanted to achieve when he came to the game last year. At the time it was treated mostly as a curiosity by the media, primarily because as head of the Australian Rufby League Commission he theoretically had no power to interfere in the game’s operation.
Fast forward a few months, a virus crisis, a putsch against the CEO of the NRL, and a public spat with the broadcasters, V’Landys looks to be getting his way regardless. Like Littlefinger, he’s taken the opportunity crisis has created to push his own agenda.
It’s been funny to see the coverage of this in the professional rugby league media. Much of it has been largely congratulatory to V’Landys, and at every step pro-V forces have been willing to dump the blame on the referees, rather than V’Landys’ inept handling of the matter. Here we can see James Hooper claiming the refs are “derailing” the season because the head of their union owns a beauty salon (seriously, I’ve never had to write down something so dumb). Here is Mark Levy saying the refs have had it too good (lol what). Shit Adrian Prozensko of the Sydney Morning Herald used the world “deftly” to describe V’Landys, which is as appropriate as calling me handsome. We can all want it to be that but I’m still here with a bald spot, a belly and teeth that look like someone jammed mini urinal cakes in my mouth. It seems the rugby league media is so grateful to possibly have the game back they are willing to accept anything so long as they don’t have to write more listicles come May 28. If they gave it a bit of critical thought, the media would instead find that V’Landys haste to push his preferred model of the game forward has undermined his case on two fronts.
Firstly, his abject rejection of proper process means that this proposal is built on sand. He rejected the views of the competition committee, who had in turn rejected this proposal ad nauseum no matter how many beers Gus Gould had cried into. He rejected the views of players, who, when it seemed to still be up for discussion, had almost unanimously been against it. When it became a fait accompli, mostly only expressed ambivalence to the change. Some like Josh Hodgson wanted to simply understand how this, and other changes were going to work practically.
Normally process for changes like this would give them that idea. There would be discussion at the competition committee, an off-season to prepare, and trial matches to see if it works. But like his introduction of the “captains challenge”, this process has been usurped in favour of learning as we go. Introducing a rule change mid-season has been done before in the NRL (famously the 10 metre rule came in mid way through 1993) but it’s silly to pretend this is a good process. It’s fine to point to international or overseas competitions as examples of how changes may work, but nothing beats trialling them properly.
He’s further screwed the pooch by failing to understand if he was actually legally able to make this change. As he has discovered just days before the re-start of the season, there is a commitment in the enterprise bargaining agreement of the referees to consult on any changes to the model. You can’t change the EBA without support of all parties; and V’Landys never sought that. He’s merely tried to bully the referees into his vision of the game, and at time of writing all he’s achieved is an arbitration date. An marginally more conciliatory approach may have got him what he wanted without the headache. Now he’s heading to the Fair Work Commission.
Compounding this fact is that V’Landys has never bothered to actually make the case for change. Initially it was to save money. When it was discovered the amount of money saved was minuscule, and when the referees confirmed they’d actually take a pay cut to stay with two refs, that shifted to “quickening the ruck”.
There is limited evidence to this claim. Data on the pace of rucks is sparse, making comparison difficult. However, we know that the pace of rucks in recent internationals was slower than the NRL average, and this is largely attributed to the ability of players to play silly buggers in the ruck. Further evidence was provided through the testimony of a host of players (most robustly David Klemmer), coaches and administrators (though this always has to be considered with a grain of salt). Most importantly, there has been almost no evidence provided to the contrary. Even the addition of the “six-again” rule, ostensibly to speed the ruck up further, is hard to assess because it wasn’t properly trialled (outside of an all-stars game a few years ago). We have no idea what the impact of that will be. And yet here we are, barging forward with a change like the Kool Aid man
The lack of evidence and poor process undermines the case for change. I actually can tolerate a move back to one referee, but it should be based on a clear idea of what is trying to be achieved, supported by evidence and the consensus of the people that have to play by the rules. The most basic consultation with the referees would have avoided potentially catastrophic industrial action. That most media is incapable of articulating this is beyond disappointing.
V’Landys will get his way in the end, so if you’re excited about one referee get ready to roll. But the more disappointing aspect, at least for proponents of change, is that the lack of proper process, consensus and evidence means the changes will be under threat as soon as V’Landys doesn’t have the same sway over the game and the media. That means more change, more complaining from media dinosaurs with agendas as transparent, all because V’Landys was too impatient or incapable of properly building a case for change.
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