Saturday 16 December 2017 / 11:47 PM

REFS ROLL OUT WEEK 2 RED CARPET FOR BRONCOS

If North Queensland claimed a conspiracy after Cronulla’s seventh-tackle try during the 2013 finals, Gold Coast has due cause to accuse the NRL of a cover-up of Watergate proportions following their 44-28 elimination at the hands of Brisbane at Suncorp Stadium on Friday night.

Whistle-blower Bernard Sutton and the Bunker teamed up to produce arguably the worst refereeing performance in a finals match since Greg Hartley’s infamous display in the 1978 minor semi replay.

This isn’t a proclamation that the better team lost – but the gallant, undermanned Titans were deprived of the opportunity to be the better team by a never-ending stream of horrendous calls that ruined what was shaping as an epic derby clash.

It continues an extraordinary run of finals heartache at the hands of referees for Titans coach Neil Henry, who was at the helm of the Cowboys for the fateful ‘Hand of Foran’ incident in 2012 and the Sharks’ seventh-tackle try a year later.

But last night’s injustices were on another level. Blatant errors from the men in the middle, and the arbitrary interference of the Bunker – followed by the Bunker’s frustrating inaction at other times, including blatant acts of foul play – saw the officials compile a catalogue of blunders that would have made ‘Hollywood’ Hartley blush.

2 min: Josh Hoffman dots down for the Titans, sent up to the Bunker as a try. Bunker finds a Hoffman knock-on despite lack of evidence. Titans try in ensuing set negates the call somewhat.

10 min: About the only time the rulebook was followed, and the Bunker still managed to alienate the vast majority of the rugby league public by awarding a penalty try to Jordan Kahu, ruling Konrad Hurrell had deliberately kicked the ball out of the Broncos centre’s grasp. It could easily be argued Hurrell was attempting to get his foot under the ball, but the Bunker opted only to look at the passage in super slo-mo. Given the bevy of incidents that didn’t warrant a penalty try during 2016, handing one out here was a disgrace.

21 min: Ahead 12-6, the Titans almost score again from a Jarryd Hayne break. Broncos knock-on ruled, but Bunker interjects and incorrectly rules a Titans knock-on and Broncos scrum feed. Broncos score in ensuing set, and capitalise on that momentum to take a 16-12 lead with another try in the 27th minute.

51 min: Broncos centre James Roberts, in possession of the ball in front of the Titans’ posts, kicks prone Titans forward Ryan Simpkins in the back before playing the ball. Referees fail to pull the incident up and Alex Glenn scores on the ensuing play after Bunker referral. Bunker makes no comment on the Roberts kick.

58 min: Corey Parker thrusts his head into opposing prop Ryan James’ head in a scrum. No action taken.

60 min: Corey Oates knocks a Titans bomb forward 10 metres out from his own line after cartwheeling awkwardly over David Mead, who was also contesting the ball. Sutton ludicrously blows a penalty against Mead in perhaps the worst call of the night. Broncos score in ensuing possession to take commanding 34-18 lead.

68 min: Titans score to reduce deficit to 12 points. Three plays after the restart, Titans forward Agnatius Paasi carries it forward and Ben Hunt deliberately plays at the ball for a one-on-one strip, knocking the ball free. Sutton rules Titans knock-on, no interjection from the Bunker. Broncos score in ensuing set for a 40-22 lead.

76 min: The battered Titans score to keep a glimmer of hope alive, and in set after the restart Jarryd Hayne puts winger David Mead into space with a cut-out pass on the Broncos’ 40-metre line. With Titans odds-on to score and potentially closing the gap to six points, Hayne’s pass is ruled forward in highly questionable call. Broncos score match-sealing try in ensuing set.

There were no swings and roundabouts for the Titans, no square-ups or rubs of the green – the underdogs genuinely didn’t get the benefit of anything resembling a 50-50 decision, while they were regularly dudded when they 100 percent deserved a call to go their way.

Vitriol was understandably flowing on social media about the officiating, with the Bunker’s Twitter account copping an absolute hammering, and the NRL and Todd Greenberg also in the firing line.

The equally maligned Match Review Panel will be under immense pressure to act on the Roberts and Parker incidents – and the non-suspension of either would create another unwanted firestorm for the NRL.

Meanwhile, the showpiece AFL clash between Geelong and Hawthorn on Friday night was a genuine classic, free of any officiating controversy.

The NRL gave their biggest competitor a major leg-up yet again with their convoluted and inconsistent rule-making, and hiring of incompetent officials who seem hell-bent on making an imprint on games.

But the show must go on. So where to for the Broncos? They can’t be blamed for the plethora of decisions that incorrectly went in their favour and duly took most of the opportunities they were offered.

It was concerning, though, that they struggled to deliver a killer blow despite an overwhelming territory (75%) and possession (56%) advantage over a Titans side crippled by injuries.

They will need to be far better next week when they face a road trip against the loser of tonight’s Storm-Cowboys encounter – and they may (read: should) have to do it without Roberts and Parker.

Roberts, if you’re looking for a positive to gloss over the fact he is a hot-headed imbecile, had one of his best games in a difficult first season in Brisbane. Anthony Milford had a blinder, Darius Boyd was superb and Josh McGuire led the way up front.

But Ben Hunt was largely anonymous, and the reshuffled three-quarter line was shaky, combining for five errors. Tactically, Wayne Bennett doesn’t seem to have learnt much from last year’s grand final defeat.

In some ways, it was a fitting exit for the Titans. Still undeniably a class below the heavyweights, they were nevertheless courageous until the bitter end, despite the loss of experienced forward Zeb Taia in the warm-up and linchpin No.7 Ashley Taylor at halftime. Tyrone Roberts also appeared hobbled, while two-try hero Chris McQueen had a black right eye and a split left cheek.

Hayne – making his first finals appearance since the 2009 grand final – had his moments, but on the whole was again disappointing. His Hunt-esque drop of the second-half kick-off – allowing the Broncos to grab the lead back immediately after the resumption – was as key a moment as anything the referees produced.

With a full pre-season at the club the club, Hayne’s timing will return and he’ll be much fitter, while Henry will be able to figure out how to best incorporate him into the Titans’ game-plan that was so successful prior to his arrival.

The Titans will be a force in 2017 – but it’s hard not to wonder how far they could have gone in this finals series had it been an even playing field last night.

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About the author

Will Evans

CBS’s Editor-in-Chief and lead rugby league, union and cricket writer, Will is a Christchurch-based freelancer, also writing for Big League and Rugby League Review magazines, and The New Daily website. Will has written four rugby league books.

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