NRL referees boss Bernard Sutton has hit back at criticism from Raiders coach Ricky Stuart despite admitting his whistleblowers made a big mistake in Canberra’s loss to Cronulla.
Sutton has conceded play should have stopped in the lead up to a Cronulla try against Canberra when a touch judge incorrectly raised his flag.
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The fallout from one of the most confusing decisions of the year continued on Saturday, as Sutton telephoned Stuart to acknowledge the blunder.
Stuart’s frustrations won’t have been helped by the fact Sutton also conceded a forward pass call that denied a Canberra try late in the match was incorrect.
But the first-year referees boss hit back at Stuart’s claims referee crackdowns had driven fans away, insisting the NRL had become a better product under his regime.
As Canberra trailed 22-18, touch judge Rick MacFarlane raised his flag after he thought he spotted a Cronulla knock-on.
Lead referee Gerard Sutton – Bernard’s brother – put his whistle to his mouth as the Raiders defenders stopped, but Sharks winger Sione Katoa was allowed to cross before the bunker ruled there was no knock-on in the lead up.
Crucially, Bernard Sutton insisted the responsibility for the error laid mostly with MacFarlane, claiming Gerard only put his whistle to his mouth after hearing him say “knock-on” and that he didn’t see the flag.
He also said it was not on the bunker to disallow the try as a result.
“At the point Rick raised his flag he should’ve thought we can’t play on here and he needed to make sure the game was stopped,” Sutton told AAP.
“The communication process around it was originally he called ‘knock-on’, and then said ‘he’s not out, keep going, check it’.
Sutton said his appointments committee would meet Monday, after a number of officials have been dropped for errors this year.
“The touch judge needed to communicate he put his flag up, he ultimately wears the bulk of responsibility on that,” Sutton said.
“We’ve been really consistent. If people make critical incorrect decisions which influence the outcome of matches, we’ve dealt with those individuals very consistently.”
The call prompted Stuart to attack the NRL, who he accused of clouding the referees’ judgments and being “the only sport in the world that change interpretations” mid-season.
He also pointed to an email sent out to coaches this week from Sutton about ruck speed, a point the referees’ boss contended.
“It was not to say there was a blitz,” Sutton said.
“It was simply a reminder of what was allowed around the play-the-ball area.
“I’m aware people who have sat in my position before have been criticised for their communication. We’ve made a real effort this year to ensure we are in constant dialogue.”
Sutton also argued the referees’ prolonged crackdown had improved the game, with his comments backed up by increased ratings, crowds and memberships in 2018.