The NRL and in particular its football department will be under immense pressure this week after a series of officiating bungles blighted Friday night’s semi-final between the Storm and Roosters.
The blunders by Ashley Klein have put his involvement in next weekend’s preliminary final – and potentially the grand final on 1 October – in doubt amid speculation the league’s top referee will be dumped for his error-strewn performance in Melbourne.
The most egregious error came when Harry Grant failed to catch a loose ball. Klein, who had a clear view and was positioned close to the ball, called play on and the Storm marched up the field and posted their second try. Audio later conveyed that Roosters skipper James Tedesco confronted Klein, who apologised.
Two other incidents also stood out where Klein failed to take sufficient action. Early in the first half, Victor Radley hit a player flush in the head, an act that has consistently resulted in a sin bin, but merely elicited a report this time around. Then in the final two minutes with the Storm trailing by one and on the attack, Harry Grant was hit across the nose directly in front of Klein but the referee and then the Bunker refused to intervene.
The NRL’s head of football, Graham Annesley, conceded Klein was wrong in both the Grant knock-on decision and the failure to penalise a high tackle on the hooker.
Klein has been the top official in the game over the last two seasons. He has been named to officiate the last six State of Origins and was in charge of last year’s grand final. He refereed the World Cup final at the end of last year and was almost certain to referee this year’s NRL decider. But it is unlikely the NRL would appoint Klein to next week’s preliminary final after two such obvious – and costly – mistakes.
This puts the NRL in a bind having appointed Adam Gee to officiate the Warriors-Knights semi-final. Gee is a respected official known for his calm demeanour but he has not officiated a men’s Origin, a grand final or a major international, and given the scrutiny on refereeing the NRL will be concerned about handing such big games to an official not used to such a stage.
The other options are the seven-time grand final referee Gerard Sutton or Grant Atkins but given both were overlooked for the semi-finals, it could be assumed they are both behind Gee in the pecking order.
In contrast to the immense pressure on the NRL, both the Melbourne Storm and New Zealand Warriors will have a free and easy feeling this week, after essentially free-rolling against the two premiership heavyweights.
The Storm were fortunate to overcome the Roosters. While Craig Bellamy’s team were the better side at AAMI Park, they failed to take advantage of their opportunities until an extraordinary Will Warbrick leap secured the victory.
Melbourne have been regulars on preliminary final weekend – this will be their 15th prelim in the last 18 seasons – never has less been expected of them. Part of this, naturally, is their opposition. Penrith are building a dynasty that ranks among the greatest the game has known and have a dominant record against the Storm in recent years. This is also arguably the least threatening Storm team of the Bellamy era. Not since 2005 has a Bellamy side conceded more points. We are long-removed from the big three era and the heir apparents – Ryan Papenhuyzen, Cameron Munster, Jahrome Hughes and Grant – are either injured or been playing well below their best,
Having failed to impress in their two finals, Melbourne will almost certainly look to play a carefree, left-handed, unpredictable brand of football. The Storm have been well beaten by the Panthers twice this season but they did trouble them early when playing a similar style in June. The fitness of Hughes is all that the Storm will be worried about.
For the Warriors, 2023 has been an extraordinary year, the most extraordinary of their 28 seasons. The oft-beleaguered club has delivered some unforgettable memories this year as Shaun Johnson and company have beset New Zealand with Wahs fever. Expected to finish in the bottom four, the Warriors finished in the top four and in their first home final in 15 years put a 40-point rampage on, eliminating the Knights and making the Warriors the coolest sporting story in New Zealand.
If the Storm are free-rolling this weekend, the Warriors have been doing so all season. Rookie coach Andrew Webster has instilled a freedom in the club that has shielded them from any expectation. Pressure has not been an issue all year for the Warriors. It won’t be this week against Brisbane either with New Zealand huge outsiders to beat the Broncos.
Pressure. It can make and it can break. For coaches, players and officials. And for the game.