NRL head of football Graham Annesley has called for fans to lay off the touch judge responsible for incorrectly ruling Storm winger Suliasi Vunivalu had gone into touch as he and head referee Ashley Klein were dropped for errors in the match.
Annesley said Michael Wise, a former State of Origin touch judge, had been subjected to personal abuse and threats for wrongly signalling Vunivalu had put a finger on the sideline after the Fijian had caught the ball from a short kick-off in the 78th minute of Saturday’s qualifying final loss to Canberra at AAMI Park.
The Raiders had just taken a 12-10 lead after Melbourne winger Josh Addo-Carr lost the ball near his own line and Joey Leilua picked it up then put John Bateman over for the match-winning try but Wise has been accused of costing the Storm victory.
“The touch judge will obviously pay the price for that,” Annesley said. “He knows it goes with the territory but I’d also say that whilst he has taken this very hard … some of the stuff that has been floating around, particularly on social media, including vilification of him as a person and threats that have been made against him are completely and totally unwarranted.”
The revelations of the attacks on Wise follow a warning by Brisbane captain Darius Boyd after Sunday’s record 58-0 elimination final drubbing at the hands of Parramatta that a player could be driven to take his life if they continue to be targeted on social media over on-field performances.
Leading referee Matt Cecchin quit the NRL last year after being subjected to threats over his decision to disallow a try to Tonga in the final minutes of their 2017 World Cup semi-final loss to England and Annesley said attacks on match officials had an impact across all levels of the game.
“The touch judge himself was personally devastated after the game when he became aware he had got it wrong and it has affected him quite badly in terms of his personal well-being,” Annesley said.
“People who make threats and character assassinations of people online really need to pull their heads in because it does affect the individuals personally and you wouldn’t be human if you a) weren’t crushed that you had made an error and b) saw some of the things that are floating around on social media.”
The NRL announced the referee's appointments for the second week of finals matches, with Klein and Wise among the officials demoted.
Klein paid the price for a series of errors, including twice failing to act on the advice of assistant referee Chris Sutton who called an off-the-ball tackle on Melbourne fullback Ryan Papenhuyzen by Elliott Whitehead and an illegal strip by the Raiders forward.
Sutton could be heard yelling to penalise Whitehead for tackling Papenhuyzen on suspicion after a long range break by Justin Olam but Klein said he did not hear him.
However, Annesely said he should have sin binned Jarrod Croker after penalising him for holding down Olam in the ensuing tackle.
While Vunivalu did not put his hand into touch, Annesley played footage to the media that showed just how close he came to doing so.
“There have been some claims that I have read that this wasn’t anywhere near the touch line and that couldn’t be further from the truth,” he said.
“Yes, he made a wrong decision but that doesn’t make him a bad person, and it doesn’t make him a bad official. He made a bad decision in this instance.
“Everyone in the game, whether you are a player, official, a referee, everyone needs to have the right to have their personal well-being and integrity protected. He hasn’t done anything deliberately wrong and he doesn’t deserve to be vilified.
“I can’t do anything to stop that other than to appeal to people. It doesn’t matter which team you support and it doesn’t matter whether it is this week, next week or in the grand final, no one is out there trying to make errors.”