The AFL’s investigations demonstrated that the timekeeper erred in only allowing the siren to sound until they witnessed players from the leading team celebrating, and not until (as was required) an umpire positively acknowledged the sounding of the siren and brought play to a final halt.
So it’s not as if there’s absolutely no precedent with the Wests Tigers having a crack. But in the AFL’s experience, reversing the match outcome caused as much consternation as doing nothing would have. And also, the AFL are a bit of a closed biosphere when it comes to these things.
However, the West’s Tigers’ case is crucially different. The NRL’s operations rules include provisions that say, categorically, that in all cases it’s the match referee who’s the sole arbiter of when play shall cease after the half-time or full-time siren sounds. The same rules, in the next paragraph, further state that the referee may extend a match to award a penalty or to complete the play currently underway, at the referee’s discretion.
Any argument that the events, which led to the Cowboys being awarded a penalty after the final whistle, somehow happened after the completion of play and in circumstances where the penalty simply couldn’t be awarded, is futile. The facts drawn from the match footage eviscerate the essence of the argument.
Wests Tigers’ contention that the match was over should garner sympathy, but it’s a losing argument. It would also create a mightily slippery slope, if match results could be overturned in such circumstances, and especially where the NRL’s rules are silent.
The short point is that the referee had quite clearly NOT decided that the match was at an end, where the referee is the sole decider of that fact.
There isn’t any right of appeal here. It would emasculate the power and authority of every official rugby league in the country, if results of this contentiousness could be simply overturned in circumstances where there is no right, power or authority to do so. For if new rules and new policy is invented ‘on the fly’ about such matters, the inevitable consequence is that it becomes the Cowboys who will then appeal. And then win.
Sports administrators and courts must refrain from interfering in such matters. Courts have a ridiculously limited appetite for resolving arguments rooted in disagreements about the correctness of in-play refereeing decisions. Sport requires finality, not judges holding a rulebook in one hand and a crystal ball in the other. Which makes sense – sport would be utterly unworkable otherwise.
Examples of rugby league decisions being judicially reviewed are virtually non-existent. When disputes involving other sports, such as thoroughbred racing, have wound their way into court, judges invariably give such cases short shrift. The relevant rules invariably preserve the sanctity of the umpire’s call, unless the rules of the actual sport permit otherwise.
Moreover, decisions of the Court of Arbitration for Sport are plentiful. The starting point is that in-play decisions are immune from review. CAS has refused to win overturn decisions disqualifying boxers because of ‘below the belt’ punches, and officials disqualifying race walkers not walking properly.
CAS refused to intervene even where Olympic gymnastics judges made blatant errors calculating a competitor’s accumulated scores, because the authority of referees would be ‘fatally undermined’ if every decision was open to post-match examination.
Jurisprudence illustrates that interference by the CAS will be an open possibility only in peculiar and rare instances. If a sport’s rules demand a referee control a match in a concrete way – such as the order of play in a penalty shootout – it’s conceivable that a breach might be reviewable. At the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City two decades ago, a South Korean speed skating case confirmed the CAS would intervene if it were proven by direct evidence that a referee’s decision was made as a manifestation of corruption or bad faith.
But such cases are almost impossible to prove. In the boxing competition at the Seoul Olympics in 1988, Roy Jones Jnr lost the gold medal bout. Months later all three judges were found to be hopelessly corrupt. By then it was too late to appeal.
Sport at its best is gloriously unscripted, uncertain and compelling. The spectacle lies in the immediacy and the uncertainty. Inherently subjective, instantaneous, line-ball judgment calls on complex rules and unclear facts will never be right all of the time. And almost always, they won’t and mustn’t be appealable.
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