In the firing line
By TONY WHITE
TRADITIONALLY rugby league referees are a targeted species. They're like live prey in a turkey shoot.
Fans love to hate them. Players abuse them and question their rulings.
The whistle blowers are under the microscope and constantly under pressure from all quarters.
It's often a thankless task but rewarding none the less, experienced Maclean-based referee Greg Graham believes.
Graham, 46, recently celebrated a milestone refereeing his 250th first grade game on April 24 when Lower Clarence beat Marist Brothers in a thriller at Maclean Showground.
"There were no problems, it was a good close game when Marist Brothers came out of the blocks quickly and Lower finished strongly," Graham said. "While it was my 250th I treated it like just any other game.
"You've got to be on the ball from the first minute to the 80th."
Throughout his 17-year career Graham has earned the respect of the players, his peers and even the fans.
In various capacities, either refereeing or running the lines, Graham has been involved on grand final day throughout most of his career.
A bread vendor by trade who plays squash and volleyball in his spare time, Graham is a rugby league devotee, not only considered one of the best of his profession but a man who has devoted countless hours to being a referee and junior rugby league official.
And like most referees he has witnessed the good, the bad and ugly side of life in the middle of the paddock.
"Yeah I've copped plenty of bakings from players, club officials and fans but I'm still here after 17 years," he said. "The trick is you take the good with the bad and remember the good stuff."
Last season, following several unsavoury incidents when rowdy fans launched derogatory personal attacks on referees at various venues, the Referees Association warned Group One officials they would not tolerate the situation and clamped a ban on officiating at matches on Ballina's home ground, Kingsford Smith Park.
This ban was later lifted but all clubs were put on notice they must control their fans.
"It's been pretty good this year," Graham said of crowd abuse. "We've only had one set of complaints from three referees at one ground and we're looking at that.
"The majority of clubs are taking notice but if people want to start getting verbal and personally derogatory towards referees we'll take action.
"Really it's up to the clubs to control their fans."
Earning respect from the players on the field is an area where Graham has a simple philosophy. A sense of humour also helps.
"I believe you've got to earn respect. If you respect them (players) they will respect you," he said. "You've got to speak to them like human beings, like you'd like to be spoken to.
"I expect to be spoken to in a proper manner. If a player doesn't respect that than it's another matter.
"Overall the players are pretty good. You can still have time to have a bit of a joke with them. That helps, it lightens some of the tension.
"Over a number of years you get to know a lot of the players and we often have a joke.
"Every game is different. It's hard to single out particular games but having a close game is better than a runaway.
"It's gets you more excited. You're more on your toes and so are the players and fans."
Graham had some interesting viewpoints on the expanded Northern Rivers Regional Rugby League competition (formerly Group One) and believes traditional clubs must take a more professional approach to remain competitive.
"I think we've got a way to go in this area when you look at some of the Gold Coast clubs," he said. "Two or three of them are at the top of the ladder. I think the Seagulls will be in the grand final.
"They are a very well drilled side and very professional in their training. I don't know, maybe the clubs up there have better offshoots from the Queensland Cup.
"I think when some of our clubs play them it's going to open their eyes."
Referee numbers remain a problem says Graham, who is senior vice-president of the NRRRL Referees Association and treasurer for Clarence Coast Junior Rugby League.
"We've got about 30 referees but many are having to back up on Saturdays and Sundays. We're still short," he said. "Ideally we need about 40 on the books.
"Sometimes referees have to run two lines before refereeing first grade, then they are fatigued and that's not good for anyone.
"And we're desperate for referees in junior football. We're trying to organise another course at the end of the year. We didn't get much response to the last one."
Target or otherwise, Greg Graham remains firmly in control of his game.