A more entertaining, free-flowing game is the main reason the ARL Commission has agreed to adopt a one-referee rule for the remainder of the 2020 season, according to chairman Peter V'landys.
A Commission meeting on Wednesday night rubber-stamped the proposal put forward by Project Apollo as a way of saving the game money and letting Telstra Premiership matches flow by cutting down stoppages.
Under the changes full-time referees will also be used as touch judges to increase the experience in touchline officiating.
"The decision shouldn’t been seen as taking one referee out it should be that we are using three full time experienced referees controlling the game which will ensure greater surveillance of the ruck and the wrestle," V'landys said.
"This decision will significantly reduce the number of stoppages in games and showcase more open unstructured play for the benefit of fans.
This decision will significantly reduce the number of stoppages.Peter V'landys
"These decisions address the issue of wrestling and slowing the ruck down which has been the biggest issue in the game.”
In tandem with the return to a single referee – which was how the game was officiated prior to 2009 – is a "six-again" rule allowing an attacking team another full set rather than stopping play for a penalty.
That rule was used in the 2012 NRL-Indigenous All Stars game on a trial basis.
"It’s clear the current system hasn’t effectively addressed the issue of wrestling in the game. Reverting to one referee together with the new six again rule gives us a chance to speed up the ruck and create more free flowing rugby league," V’landys said.
"Giving the attacking team six more tackles for a ruck infringement will be a significant deterrent to slowing the ruck.
"No team is going to want to defend multiple sets of tackles without a stoppage in play. This is the greatest disincentive for what has become habitual ruck infringements."
The NRL is the only rugby league competition in the world that uses two referees. Tests use one referee.
V’landys said the Commission had also taken into account the view of fans when making the decision.
"When I became chairman, I said I would listen to the fans. Last year we conducted a fan survey and the overwhelming majority of fans said they wanted to go back to one referee and their views should be taken on board," he said.
The Commission has given a commitment that all 22 full-time referees will be retained for the remainder of the season and there is no intention to reduce that number in 2021.
At the end of the year, the Commission will review the one-referee model to determine whether it remains a permanent fixture for future seasons.
Before the announcement on Wednesday night, players and coaches were divided on whether it was the right call.
Moves to revert to a single referee would not provide an any unexpected shock for players, according to Eels forward Nathan Brown.
As players and coaches continue to digest the proposed idea of the NRL returning to one central referee – which was the case up until 2009 – Brown feels the move won't cause any ructions at all.
"Most players have played with one ref for most of their career [in the junior ranks] so I don't think it really matters. It's all good," Brown said on Wednesday.
Warriors coach Stephen Kearney wasn't so sure.
"My personal opinion on the one ref is that I just don't think at this particular time – on the back of being out for seven weeks – that it's too big a change to our game. It's the same with the six-again rule. I think they're just too big adjustments to make," Kearney said.
"We just started team training on Monday. So to get any sort of awareness around it all I just think it's a bit too early to bring that in."
Sharks senior players Aaron Woods and Chad Townsend did not see the need to make such a major change virtually mid-season.
"I don’t like the six restart proposal and I don’t like the fact that proposals are being put forward at this time. It’s just a time to continue with the product we've got," Townsend said.
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"There’s pros and cons with both sides. With one ref you probably get a little more clarity about what’s going on as there’s one ref interpreting the game his way.
"With two refs you probably get a better indication around the ruck because the second ref can sit behind the ruck and call penalties as he sees fit.
"For me I still think we’ve got a great product. I understand these times are very different though.”
Woods prefers two whistleblowers but it was a secondary consideration for the prop compared to getting the Telstra Premiership restarted.
"I just want to go out there and play footy whether it’s one ref or two refs. But obviously you want two refs as that’s what we practise all pre-season.
"But it is what it is if we have to go to one ref. Poor old Peter V’landys is working 23 hours a day to get the show up and running. He’s damned if he does, damne if he doesn’t.
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"He’s trying to get the show running but everyone has always got their own little input. In the end I don’t give a rat’s arse. I just want to go out there and play some footy."
South Sydney's Test hooker Damien Cook sees merit in both options.
"Obviously the two refs to one ref is a big difference. That’s what that second ref does in the pocket – he cleans up the ruck and gets guys to clear the ruck more quickly. So [one ref] could be seen as slowing the game up," he said.
"The six again, which would see potentially teams doing 12 tackles in a row, so you could also see some quick play-the-balls allowing teams to play on the front foot.
"I definitely like the sound of both rules. I’m open to anything."
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Cook said when he played under one ref twice for Australia last year, he felt although players could "get away with a bit more" they had to play smarter to outwit markers who were in turn not being pinged by the pocket refs.
"I think it needs to be trialled at junior or reserve-grade levels. But obviously we don’t have that this year," he said.
"It is a big decision to make but in saying that, we’ve all been through a lot the last few weeks so if there’s a right time to do it, this might be the time."