‘Unconscious’ bias dooms the Warriors for all eternity

The Warriors will never win the NRL.

Not this year (obviously). Not next year, nor the year nor the decade nor the century after that.

Never, ever, bloody, anything, ever, as the late Rik Mayall not so famously said in the 1988 Comic Strip cult classic Mr Jolly Lives Next Door.

“I’ve lived my life by that rule,” Mayall told Nicolas Parsons, the celebrity BBC presenter who was supposed to be the victim of an assassination but instead suffered the worse fate of spending an evening being entertained by alcoholic male escorts Mayall and Adrian Edmondson.

It’s a rule the Warriors, too, have lived by - and continue to do so.

The Warriors will never win the NRL because the task is too great.

If it were, say, just a matter of being the best team in the competition, there would be no need for such fatalism. But simply being the best team won’t ever be enough to garner the Warriors the NRL title. Because they’ll still start the season on minus 6 points, they’ll head into the playoffs several places lower on the ladder than they deserve to be, and they’ll still get dudded on every 50-50 call in finals matches.

That’s the grim reality of the generously-coined “unconscious bias” of the NRL’s officials the Warriors are subjected to year-in, year-out. In a competition where the performance margins between the best and the worst teams are remarkably slender, the bar for the Warriors is set impossibly high.

To win the NRL Premiership, they’ll not only have to be the best team, they’ll have to be the best team by a proverbial mile. And that ain’t happening.

The root of the problem is that the NRL’s incredibly insular power brokers don’t believe the Warriors routinely get a bum deal, and they wouldn’t care if they did.

They will never acknowledge that the playing field is tilted and attempt to level it, because there will always be something more pressing to deal with than the imagined injustices of a bunch of whinging koi-wees.

The way the NRL sees it, all those weeks the Warriors were shafted badly enough to earn apologies from the referees’ boss aren’t evidence of anything more than a statistical anomaly. All teams receive rough justice, but it is swings and roundabouts. Things even out over time.

Except they don’t. If they did, the Warriors would have banked a fortunate win or four by now to make up for being shafted out of a victory over the Storm in round seven by an incorrect late penalty decision.

They wouldn’t have been victimised by a ridiculous try from a blatantly forward pass in a draw with the Broncos.

Stephen Kearney wouldn’t have received a call from the NRL apologising for two Cronulla tries that should have been ruled out. The Warriors wouldn’t have had two clear errors on ball strips in tackles go against them in Parramatta, and have had a winning try disallowed for a forward pass that wasn’t.

And they wouldn’t have staggered into the weekend’s match against the Raiders looking and feeling like the dog Springsteen sung about in Born In The USA.

In fact, none of that would have happened at all, because the law of swings and roundabouts would have ensured the Warriors had the rub of the green this season to make up for getting so badly shafted last season.

The Warriors are perceived to have a “huge” pack, even when it is undersized by NRL standards. For “huge”, then, it’s probably safe to read “scary-looking brown dudes”.

As it happens, it was just on a year ago I resigned my commission as an NRL correspondent for a British monthly rugby league magazine due, in the main part, to the horrendous state of officiating in the competition.

I figured if I wanted to spend a couple of hours engaging with a sport only to work myself into a state of anger, frustration and disillusionment, I might as well take up golf.

I filed a final column describing the disenfranchisement that was beginning to afflict fans, the erosion of faith in the integrity of outcomes of NRL matches, and the impact that unfortunate state of affairs would have on the game if it continued.

Based on recent conversations with friends who are die-hard fans, it turns out I was merely an early adopter of that view. Even the die-hards have had enough and are tuning out.

For the first time since 1995, this column has not watched every Warriors match in a season. And, for the first time in many years, I’ve not taken the family to Mt Smart Stadium to take in a game.

In fact, my level of lack of interest is such that this column wasn’t even going to be about the Warriors and their endless woes – it was going to be about Steve Smith being good at hitting cricket balls.

It wasn’t until I stumbled across an interesting piece by league writer Jackson Thomas outlining the historic nature of the refereeing bias endured by the Warriors, that the subject changed.

The piece describes an audio transmission from a referee’s mic that was unknowingly still operating after a match in which a Warriors forward had been sent off for a dubious offence. The referees reportedly conspired to ‘justify what they knew to be wrong call’ if it went to the judiciary. During the discussion, someone was heard saying: “who cares he's just a b.... c...”.

That reporting didn’t come as a shock to someone who has always suspected the ‘unconscious’ bias of NRL referees contained a racial element.

Racial preconceptions about the Warriors manifest themselves in a bunch of ways. More than one Aussie pundit has described the club’s legendary free-flowing style as “jungle footy”, somewhat ignoring the fact that under coaches such as Ivan Clearly and Stephen Kearney, the Warriors have favoured a rigid, highly structured approach.

The Warriors are perceived to have a “huge” pack, even when it is undersized by NRL standards. For “huge”, then, it’s probably safe to read “scary-looking brown dudes”.

And when it comes to 50-50 calls on ball strips and knock-ons, isn’t it just possible that the (largely) white Australian officials perceive the brown players as being more likely to steal a ball, and less likely to possess the dexterity to hold onto it?

That might sound outrageous – but it is not all that long ago that it was standard practice at at least one semi-professional club for black players in the team to be blindfolded and have balls thrown at them to help them conquer a natural disposition to being bad at catching.

And it wasn’t exactly all that long ago that there were no black quarterbacks in the NFL, because black players were presumed to lack the mental acuity to play a complicated position.

In fairness to NRL referees, it is a darn tough job. They are forced to make instant decisions based often on incomplete evidence. Often enough, there’s going to be an element of going with the ‘gut’ in a decision.

Unfortunately for the Warriors, the gut instinct of most NRL referees seems to be that it's more likely that it was a Warriors player who infringed or made an error.

It’s hard to see how that will ever be overcome. For the Warriors, that unfortunate reality means they will always face an uphill battle. Year-in, year-out, they’ll finish four to six points lower on the table than they deserve. In bad years, it won’t matter. In better years, it will be the difference between making the top eight and just missing out.

In good years, it will be the difference between a vital top four finish and fifth or sixth. The slope will always be too steep. Year-in, year-out, the players get beaten down to the point where they feel like losers. Then they start to play like them.

All that needs to said about this Warriors team is that they have the best player in the game in their side. Roger Tuivasa-Sheck is a genius. In any other team, he would be a difference-maker. At the Warriors he makes no difference.

And that’s a crying shame.

Now, where I did I put those golf clubs?

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