Russell Smith is now in the hot seat as the man most likely to be appointed video referee in the grand final at the end of a season marred by a succession of botched decisions by the officials upstairs.
The other video ref in the running to get the biggest game of the year appears to be Sean Hampstead, who made the most controversial decision of the season in State of Origin I. He was also dropped towards the end of the regular season for getting a call wrong on a try that involved a decoy play in a game between Canterbury and Wests Tigers.
Smith was the main video referee and Hampstead his assistant in the game between South Sydney and Canberra on Saturday. The match passed without controversy. But Steve Clark and assistant Paul Simpkins will be discarded after it was decided Clark had made a critical error and Simpkins had supported Clark's decision in the Manly-North Queensland game on Friday.
Referees' bosses Bill Harrigan and Stuart Raper will now have to find two new video referees to complete a set of four for next weekend's preliminary finals. Melbourne will play Manly at AAMI Park on Friday, and Canterbury will meet South Sydney at ANZ Stadium on Saturday.
Clark, Smith, Simpkins and Hampstead were the lead video refs in the first week of the finals. Paul Mellor, Bernard Sutton, Chris Ward and Phil Cooley were their respective supports.
Presumably, Harrigan and Raper will elevate two of those four first-week assistants to the roster as assistants to Smith and Hampstead for next weekend's games, but that is not clear at this stage. Neither Harrigan nor Raper returned the Sydney Morning Herald's phone calls yesterday.
Hampstead was the video ref who awarded the try to Queensland star Greg Inglis in Origin I on May 23. The ball was knocked from Inglis's grasp by NSW hooker Robbie Farah's boot and subsequently hit the centre's arm before Inglis regathered it to score. The play was widely regarded as a knock-on, but Harrigan supported Hampstead's decision, saying that because Inglis had not deliberately played at the ball, it was still live.
After officiating in the NRL round on the weekend after the Origin game, Hampstead was left off the roster for the following round, but Harrigan said he had been ''rested''. That was not the case after round 24, however. Hampstead allowed a try to the Bulldogs against the Tigers that Harrigan said should have been disallowed, and Hampstead was dropped for the subsequent round. He was reinstated for the last round.
There is huge doubt over whether Harrigan and Raper will remain in charge of the referees after this season. The NRL will review refereeing operations at the end of the season, and that will determine their futures. Nathan McGuirk, the league's director of football operations, yesterday refused to discuss the future beyond the remaining two weekends of the season.
''The focus for Bill and Stuart is on the next three games,'' McGuirk said. ''We have the biggest games of our season coming up, and the performances of the match officials are vitally important. The league will review all of its departments at the end of the season.''
The league's acting chief executive, Shane Mattiske, said the main aim between now and the end of the season was simple - ''to avoid errors'' - and he promised the end of season review would be ''thorough''.
McGuirk said he attended a luncheon yesterday at which Ben Cummins was awarded the Col Pearce Medal for best referee of the season.
- Sydney Morning Herald