Yalden: NFL model contains lessons for us

NIGEL YALDEN
Last updated 05:00 27/07/2013
Steve Walsh
Photosport
TOUGH GIG: Referees have the "hardest job in all of sport".

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OPINION: It easy to forget that, in comparison with other major sporting competitions around the world, Super Rugby is barely out of its nappies and still adjusting to life in pull-ups.

While Sanzar do a far better job running the game than they get credit for, it surprises me that certain things done in the home of professional sport - the United States - have not filtered their way Down Under.

Because when you cut through the hype, the bluff, the bluster and get to the heart of American sport, you find that they have built their professional sports leagues on simple but effective concepts.

One that stands out to me is the team approach to officiating in use in the National Football League [NFL].

The NFL have officiating crews; a team of nine people led by the referee which includes an umpire, head linesman, line judge, field judge, side judge, back judge, replay official and replay assistant who spend the entire season working together.

Not every now and then - the entire season, like the teams whose games they adjudicate on.

As a result, the officiating crews can build camaraderie, understanding, confidence and trust in each other.

NFL Films and ESPN have provided great insights into the work of referees in American football - the good, the bad, the humorous and the perplexing.

Like the teams, the officiating crews are competitive, trying to put themselves in position to make the playoffs and ultimately, the big one, the granddaddy of them all - the Super Bowl.

It is a great system and one that Sanzar should implement in Super Rugby.

Here is my suggestion - a five-man crew, headed by the senior referee and including three assistant referees and a television match official.

The three assistant referees would be made up of a referee who has officiated at Super Rugby level, though not as often as the team leader, an ITM Cup referee and a young referee who has officiated at ITM Cup games but not on a regular basis. As an example, one North Island crew could be headed by Glen Jackson with Bay of Plenty's Nick Briant as lead assistant, Richard Kelly of Taranaki as a second assistant, a young ref like Waikato's Grant Stuart as the third and Glenn Newman of North Harbour as the television match official.

Come game day, the extra assistant referee would be a reserve. He would not have subs controlling duties or the like but sit sideline observing, ready to step in if someone blows a hammy.

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Now this does not mean that Jackson would control every game that his crew officiates.

Appointments would be made by Sanzar match manager Lyndon Bray and, if he thought it appropriate, Bray could give the whistle to Briant, shift Jackson to AR1 duties and allow Kelly and Stuart to swap roles to get the younger one a bit of experience.

Maybe late in the season, if a suitable match arose, Kelly could get a chance in the middle.

The teams that play in Super Rugby spend the season together, be it on the training field, in the gym, in team meetings, video sessions and promotional events, and socialise together too.

Yet the referees are drawn together sometimes for game day only.

Afford them the same opportunity to build a team like the players do, and I believe the standard and depth of officiating would improve as a result.

Nigel Yalden is a Waikato-based sports commentator for Newstalk ZB and Radio Sport.

- Waikato

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