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Fear and loathing in Penrose

The fear for the Warriors is that Friday night’s unfortunate reverse against the Sharks will torpedo what has been a season of much promise.

The loathing will be mainly directed at referees Adam Gee and Chris Buttler, and touch judge Tim Roby, who conspired to miss a blatant forward pass that sent Sharks left wing Edrick Lee in for the match-winning try in the 77th minute. But it should really be directed at a complacent NRL that continues to allow inept, uneven officiating.

Warriors coach Stephen Kearney admitted he was “pissed off” at proceedings on Friday night, taking the number of pissed off people at Mt Smart Stadium to 14,196. The final pass may have been the final straw, but Warriors fans have long been in a perpetually pissed off state.

It’s impossible, sadly, to shake the feeling that the team consistently gets a raw deal from the match officials. That feeling has been exacerbated by a number of factors this season, the most influential being a sharp rise in the number of times the Warriors have been shafted, and a sharp increase in Warriors fans having something to care about.

To borrow from a TAB advertising slogan, it hurts more when there’s something riding on it.

The ugly scenes intensified during a wonderfully unstatesmanlike on-field interview with Sharks captain Paul Gallen, whose encouragement to the crowd to “Yeah go on give it to us” necessitated the provision of extra security around the visiting team.

“The crowd wanted to f***ing lynch them,” a club insider told this column.

Memo to the NRL: when 15,000 people pay to attend a match with the intent of enjoying themselves and end up enraged to the point of wanting to commit violence, you’ve got a problem.

And when people are so consistently annoyed that they lose faith in the integrity of the contest, the problem is tracking towards terminal.

The NRL knows full well the integrity of matches is vital to a sustained interest in its competition, hence the existence of its integrity unit. That unit, however, focuses largely on the intersection between the sport and gambling – traditionally fertile ground for shonky business – and player behaviour.

Regulating officiating is the purvey of referees boss Bernard Sutton, a man who hit the nail on the head after round 16 when he described the performance of his match officials as “consistent”.

Friday night was classic example of that consistency, with the Warriors consistently on the wrong side of bad calls.

A bizarre ‘no advantage’ ruling led to a Sharks try, while the real clincher was the penalising of forward Chris Satae for not getting to his feet to play the ball - when he had clearly gotten to his feet to play the ball.

Having no doubt invested countless hours drilling Satae and his team-mates on the most vital facet of the game, Kearney was appalled to see his player penalised for perfectly executing a quick-play-the-ball (despite Gallen’s obvious and illegal interference).

"Someone will have to explain that rule to me again because I'm watching it and I'm thinking he got to his feet," said Kearney.

"He played the ball and then got his leg pulled. That's the way I saw it.”

He saw it that because that is precisely what happened.

The question is: what did Adam Gee see? Beyond baseless conspiracy theories, the only explanation for Gee’s ruling is that he saw something that didn’t happen. And saw it moments after receiving a rousing bollocking from Gallen over a perfectly legitimate penalty the Sharks copped for not facing the opposing goal line when playing the ball.

While the game-deciding botched calls like the Sharks forward pass get the attention, it is calls like that imaginary Satae penalty that are ultimately more damaging. The Warriors cop this type of abysmal call week-in week-out in the NRL. And always have done.

The NRL’s now aborted crackdown on off-sides has exacerbated an already grim situation. At the beginning of the season, referees were instructed to actively look for and blow up off-side infringements. Australian officials who were already highly attuned to picking up Warriors infringements have had little trouble finding more indiscretions.

The Warriors have been frequently blown off the park – and not just by the opposition.

“What I don’t understand is how we get dud calls at home?” the club insider pondered ruefully.

The answer to that is simple. The Warriors don’t play any real home games – matches where the officials can be influenced by the crowd to see things a certain way. The Warriors play in an Australian competition officiated almost exclusively by Australians (the exception is Henry Perenara, a former Warriors player who, for obvious reasons, is under extreme pressure not to display any bias whenever he officiates in a Warriors match).

When Australians referee the Warriors, they see the match through Australian eyes - a view that very often appears to favour the Australian opposition. There is a reason most international sports prefer neutral officials.

Australians, of course, very rarely see it this way.

Gallen’s unsympathetic response to Friday night’s proceedings was typical. Having received his own share of rough calls in his career, Gallen no doubt felt having a few ‘50-50s’ go his team’s way was simply justice. And that the Warriors were just whingers.

Former Warriors prop Jacob Lillyman felt exactly that way when he played for the Cowboys. A couple of seasons after switching to the Warriors career he had joined the ranks of those who believed the Kiwi club was routinely persecuted by Australian officials. Being on the wrong side of a penalty count every week and being pinged for imaginary infringements will do that to you.

Uneven officiating is one of the major reason the Warriors struggle to contend in the NRL. In a competition that is incredibly even, it doesn’t take much to tilt the balance one way or the other – just like it did on Friday night.

Had the Warriors won – as they should have – they would now sit second equal on the ladder. Instead they are fifth.

More importantly, things appear to be reaching a tipping point. The level of disaffection among fans has grown to the point where many fans will start tuning out rather than subject themselves to more torture, while those that remain have no trouble finding fertile ground for their conspiracy theories.

The sad fact is that watching Warriors games has become hard work. Ref rage is only ever a whistle blow away. Even victories are joyless affairs, with the sensation at the final whistle akin to being acquitted after spending years in prison for a crime you didn't commit. Justice delayed is still justice denied, and all that.

 A friend who took his kids to Friday night’s game described having a great time for 60 minutes but then spending 20 minutes working himself into a rage while losing his voice from screaming at the officials. At the end of it, he seriously wondered why he had bothered, and wasn’t planning on attending another match any time soon.

The reality is there is no conspiracy against the Warriors in the NRL. They’re an important part of the competition’s economic footprint, and there is plenty of support and admiration for them among the sport’s key influencers across the Tasman.

The NRL, though, has a major blind spot when it comes to the bias that occurs during the officiating of the club’s matches. They view it as a figment of the imagination which, given proceedings on Friday night, is more than a little fitting. They won't try to fix it, won't even acknowledge it exists. Warriors fans are already voting with their feet. And their eyeballs.

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