Kent: NRL referees must stand up to cynical teams
The talk before the resumption was about integrity.
New rules, a shortened season, and whether the eventual premiers who emerged would be allowed to wear their crown proudly or would have to put up with a dreaded asterisk.
Three rounds into the resumed season and the fight in every game is such there is no question the eventual premiers will be as legitimate as any in the past 112 years.
The test now, though, is on the referees.
The good teams are already doing what everybody knew they would do. They are bending and bastardising the new rules, and the goal to make the game look more attractive, in pursuit of their own interests.
Already they are beginning to sneak ahead of the referees.
In three rounds the referees have gone from great to good to average. They are struggling to keep up with the subtlety of what the best defensive teams are doing, the hand faster than the eye.
Small tricks are slipping through.
And the coaches, in pursuit of competitive advantage, are taking advantage of the referees' goodwill and confusion.
Were those markers deliberately splitting? Or was it simply fatigue and so worthy of being overlooked?
Was that a hand on the ball that caused it to pop out? Or a loose carry?
Markers are drifting back, so far they are longer at marker. Offside players are standing in the opposition defensive line, behind the play-the-ball, corrupting the defensive structure but seemingly making it look like they were caught accidentally out of position.
Another cynical move already adopted happens once the referees spot a foul and call six again.
It is an odds-on bet that the next tackle will be the ugliest tackle ever made, slow and messy and entirely deliberate. This is the con being played on the referees.
All teams are concerned with at this point is maintaining the integrity of their defensive line. They see no great suffering giving away a second six again - immediately after another - if it allows them to get their defensive line in order.
Plus, they are taking the odds to it.
Fear of criticism often means the referee won't call the second six again.
Referees boss Bernie Sutton was walking into a 3pm meeting with his referees on Monday afternoon, already aware all this was going on, his job now to fix it.
"We have got to make sure that we are ahead of it," Sutton was saying.
"Any cynical stuff, depending on the game situation, we need to make sure we are really strong."
Felise Kaufusi should have been sin-binned when he knocked the ball free on Saturday night.
It was a professional foul in every sense.
Yet it was almost so blatant it caught the referee by surprise.
Saturday's win for Melbourne over Newcastle was as simple as the difference between a well-grooved team, with years of continuity, and a team still learning to understand its defensive systems.
Melbourne adjusted defensively and Newcastle tried. They both tried to defend the same way.
Parramatta have shown a solid understanding of the rules since the season resumed, getting off their defensive line often so quickly that they are there to meet the ballrunner at the advantage line.
Every team is exploring ways to exploit the new rules, some more effective than others.
As well as double up fouls straight after a six again, teams are still waiting for the referee to call held before they take the ball-carrier to the ground, the third man is still joining the tackle after the referee has called held, hands are still all over the ball and some players are still laying on tackled runners long enough to roll a cigarette.
They are jumping the line early while the referee watches the ruck.
Teams are splitting at marker, aware that the markers don't come under the jurisdiction for a six again call.
All are ploys, seemingly innocent, designed to slow the play-the-ball down and win the battle at the ruck.
The problem for the referees is the unspoken directive. Head office, basking on the praise of the faster, more free flowing game the rule changes have encouraged, naturally favours a game where fewer penalties, and so fewer stoppages, are blown.
It will undo all the praise, so what's the odd slow tackle …?
The answer, if nothing changes, is it will slowly go back to what it was, despite the overwhelming support the game has received under this new crackdown.
The solution is not a popular one but is already necessary.
It is time to start putting players in the sin bin for professional fouls.
Coaches will wear a penalty, because it will at least allow them to reset their defensive line.
A sin bin puts them at a distinct disadvantage, though, and so will be avoided at all costs.
Originally published as Kent: NRL referees must stand up to cynical teams