While the bunker has haunted quite a few games this round, it arguably played the most controversial role in the Raiders’ clash against the Titans at GIO Stadium on Saturday afternoon. What distinguished this match, in particular, was that frustration at the bunker centred on one particular video ref – Henry Perenara – who awarded Titans centre John Olive a try at the 78th minute to seal the deal for Gold Coast. While it was inconclusive whether or not Olive actually grounded the ball, the policy seems to be to give the benefit of the doubt when possible. While that’s probably the best approach, seeing some of these decisions replayed and reviewed during the bunker segments has actually reminded us that a lot of Rugby League refereeing is little more than guesswork. Given how complicated the combination of players, ground and ball can be, the right call is sometimes unknowable, even or especially to the players themselves.
That’s created a new kind of frustration this season – particularly clear in the closing twenty minutes for the Cowboys on Friday night – in which players are forced to confront their perceptual remoteness from what’s going on right in front of their faces. While both Ricky Stuart and Neil Henry cautioned against taking Perenara’s decision too personally, I wouldn’t be surprised of one byproduct of the bunker system is that video refs start to take on the notoriety that some refs have in Rugby Union. Since League is a more local sport, refs tend to have lower profiles, but by centralising and universalising the referee system the bunker changes all that. As a non-local, “objective” decision-making venue, it bears some resemblance to the international committees on Union rules, with the result that we may start to see the rise of “personality refs” like Craig Joubert, who can often seem like an additional risk factor whenever the Wallabies take the field.
The decision to award Olive’s try was all the more galling in that it signalled the first loss to the season for Canberra, who were leading 20-6 in the 55th minute in what seemed to be a done deal. That said, the Raiders have been a bit sloppy this season and have perhaps been taking their winning streak a bit for granted – they were lucky not to lose last weekend to the Knights and should have had Saturday’s match under their belt as well, not least because two of their best assets were in strong form. On the one hand, Josh Hodgson put in his best performance of the year at hooker in the first half, playing a key role in what was probably Canberra’s best forty minutes of attacking so far this year. By the same token, Jarrod Croker put in a consistent, elegant kicking game, culminating with a deft penalty goal in the second half, even if by that stage it was too late to halt Gold Coast’s momentum.
At the same time, however, veteran prop Frank-Paul Nuuausala let down the Canberra side with a few cheap moves, most dramatically when he took out Ryan James on his way downfield after Zeb Taia had just scored for the Titans. With the score narrowed down to 20-18, the last thing that the Raiders wanted to do was to give the Titans a shot at a penalty goal. In an era when the game is dominated by big men, and when the interchange has been reduced, props need to be dexterous thinkers as well as heavy muscle, and Nuuausala should have known better. Not only did he display a lack of sportsmanship and hand Gold Coast a penalty on a plate, but his moves smacked of desperation, and the Titans picked up the scent, bringing a new intensity to their play.
On the other side of the ball, Ryan James was especially impressive, crossing to score for the third consecutive week in yet another reminder that he needs to be considered for the other sky-blue jersey later in the year. However, it was a cruel irony for the Raiders that Dave Shillington was the best on the field for Gold Coast, scoring his first try back at GIO after leaving the Raiders in 2015 and joining James in racking up a pair of soft tries that must have had Ricky Stuart even more frustrated than usual. So hard and fast was Shillington that it didn’t even seem to be a major blow when Greg Bird was knocked out in the first half – if anything, it gave Shillo a chance to shine as the Titans’ new resident hard man, making it feel like a double whammy when Bird rejoined the team after the break.
All in all, then, the game was a reminder that the Titans are fast becoming a force to be reckoned with. More at risk than ever before in their history, the looming threat of being supplanted by the Gold Coast Bears seems to have galvanised them into a new solidarity and synergy, and Shillington seems critical to that effort. Nevertheless, it wasn’t all good news for the Titans, with Shillo appearing to go on too early after Tyrone Roberts left with a knee injury, leading to a five-second crossover when the big prop would have had to have been back in Raiders colours again for the Titans to remain uncompromised. If the clash at GIO was a bit of a watershed moment for the bunker, then, it was also a watershed moment for the new interchange protocol, with the Titans holding their breath to see what kind of punishment would be handed down by the NRL administration.
As it turned out, they were hut with a fine, rather than being stripped of competition points, a fortunate outcome given the way they’ve managed to build momentum over the last couple of weeks. It’ll be exciting, then, to see how they continue that impetus next weekend, especially since they’ll have a chance to continue their terrific streak of home wins when they face off against the Broncos at Cbus. Canberra, on the other hand, are on the road for the next two weeks, and Nuuausala needs to get himself in check before he faces the Bulldogs next Monday night. Up against what are arguably the strongest and most dexterous big boppers in the competition – and backed by a home crowd at Belmore – the Raiders are going to need to do everything they can to manage the strength, agility and judgement of their big men, especially after some of the brainsnaps and cheap shots we saw this weekend.