Paul Kent: Subconscious bias shown by referees not helping teams like Tigers rise to top
It’s tough being the Tigers at the moment. As if trying to reach the finals for the first time in ages wasn’t hard enough, last weekend they had to deal with an extra obstacle.A common headache shared among the bottom half of the competition is that far too often the 50-50 calls in the game go 60-40 against.
This is tremendous news for the better teams. Not so much for those trying to get there.
It is a subconscious bias that exists among the referees and the reason scouting reports by referees on players should be banned forever.
It slaughtered Wests Tigers on Saturday.
Over the first five rounds the referees noticed how the markers were splitting early to try to shut down Damien Cook at the ruck.
Cook is the game’s most damaging dummy-half runner. One chance and he is gone.
So to regain control of the ruck, the referees went into Saturday’s game with an emphasis on being more diligent.
This decision, made before a ball was kicked, immediately advantaged Cook a whole heap, and after that it did not matter what the Tigers tried. They were paying for the sins of the teams that played Souths before them.
The snowball effect it sparks creates bigger problems, too.
Over the game, the close calls increasingly went South Sydney’s way.
Again, this is tremendous for the Rabbitohs. For the Tigers, who need to play better just to be even, not so much.
Superior teams handle adversity better than those trying to get there. It is true on the football paddock the same as it is in politics, or business, or the field of battle.
After the most disappointing performance of the season, when they failed to show up for the first half against North Queensland, the Tigers responded with the kind of performance on Saturday that can turn around seasons.
They got into the battle against Souths, even if the Rabbitohs ultimately prevailed because they performed better in more crucial moments than the Tigers.
That they failed to win shows where they are in their progression. The improvement for Wests comes slowly winning more of those moments, as Souths did.
What does not help is the subconscious bias shown by the referees.
For years now referees have been studying players hoping their homework will improve their decision making on the field.
Everything about it is wrong.
It creates this subconscious bias which, like the Tigers trying to defend Cook, punishes teams for the sins of those who came before them.
It was not Wests Tigers fault that earlier teams were splitting markers to defend against Cook, or that the referees missed it, and it is very much not Cook’s fault.
But it was the Tigers who paid the price as the referees penalised anything close to an early split at marker — to compensate for their failings in previous weeks.
Under eight six-again rulings, the Tigers’ defence began to labour.
Once there was a time when referees got a feel for the game and adjudicated according to style.
This feel for the game died under the two referee system. The whistle blowers seemed to spend as much time trying to figure out each other’s style as they did finding the rhythm of the game.
The buzzword became all about “consistency”, which was absurd.
Jack Hetherington was in a completely different game when he got sent off than Victor Radley was when he got sin-binned. Similar tackles, but not the same, and in entirely different circumstances.
What constitutes consistency?
The referee in each game called it as he saw it.
It is impossible to achieve consistency from every game in every week, yet it has become the never-ending narrative. The best that can be hoped for is that a referee is consistent from the first minute to the last, allowing the game to flow in between.
This search for consistency is the seed of where it all began to go wrong.
It has led the game to where, the moment a new rule or interpretation is invoked, coaching staffs immediately brainstorm ways to beat it.
The referees’ good intentions are being used against them.
The old-fashioned holding down in the play the ball, for instance. Some referees allowed longer than others and coaches and fans blued they were inconsistent. How long could they hold down?
They wanted consistency, even though nowhere in the rules is there actually a time limit for holding down, but still the referees worked with them for uniformity.
Immediately, every team knew exactly how long they could hold down the ball-runner before being pinged and so they trained for it, slowing the game even more.
The better teams became better at exploiting this space within the referee’s interpretation and benefitted more.
The Tigers were strong on Saturday and it could be the start of their rise. Or it becomes irrelevant if they cannot find it against Manly again this Sunday.
This is the Tigers at the moment.
And it is Canterbury and the Cowboys and Manly, and even St George Illawarra, all trying to bridge the gap while hoping for a fair go.