For some time now, Bill Harrigan has been held aloft by the media, the League and the money men as the best ref the NRL has to offer. Perhaps, this is a sad statement on the overall condition of refereeing standards but it is much more likely that Bill's status is elevated by politics as well as a substantial share of manure groveling.
In the sixties there was a ref by the name of Darcy Lawler who was given all the top jobs and considered the best ref that the game had. There are a number of players who believed then and still believe to this day that Darcy Lawler favoured certain teams, depending on where his bets were placed. Nowadays, it seems that Darcy's antics are common knowledge...the question is, why was he considered to be the top ref? By all accounts, he had a reputation which was at best dubious and at worse exposing a basic flaw which made him incapable of doing his job. Was it case of the Emperor's new clothes? It seems that people just didn't want to see what was going on because it was far too difficult to comprehend. The innuendo must have been rife then, just as it is now.
Offcourse, I wouldn't suggest for a moment that Bill has a vested interest in the result of any match. But I am willing to suggest that he has an ego the size of Sydney Harbour and in many ways that is a far more dangerous thing.
When Bill first came on the scene, he was raised up to represent the 'new age' of refereeing. The first team to question him was St George who said they had a problem with Bill and it was documented in the mid 90s that the club and the ref had a meeting 'to sort out their differences'.
Bill copped heaps of flack after Saints' loss in the 1999 grand final. The match saw countless bad ref calls go against the Dragons in the final 20 minutes.
The following year, he copped plenty of criticism after the State of Origin & he displayed egotistical contempt for his critics in his media responses.
In 2002, history repeated itself when Bill blundered his way through the State of Origin and once again, he was the main headline coming into the decider.
Last Friday night's Knights v Parramatta match was perhaps the worst piece of refereeing I have ever had the misfortune to witness. Over 21,000 people paid to get in and countless more tuned in to watch Harrigan take the game away from the players.
It wasn't so much the multitude of penalties that were leveled against Parramatta in the opening minutes that concerned me, nor was it the result. To be honest, I had a small wager on the Knights to win. Not being an employee of the NRL, I'm allowed the freedom to do that sort of thing. No, it was the obsessive sin binning of three Parramatta players in the space of eight minutes that ruined the game and made me wonder if my winnings were legitimate.
Bill Harrigan sin binned Buettner (56th min), N Hindmarsh (58th min) and Dykes (64th min) effectively forcing Parramatta to play the game with ten men. It was after the Dykes sin binning that the Knights finally broke through to score and capture the lead. In every case, The Parramatta players were sidelined for not clearing the play the ball area quickly enough. Harrigan apparently deciding that the Eels were only offenders in this area.
He also sin binned Buettner again in the 75th minute for dissent bringing the final tally to four.
Whatever opinion you have, it was clear that it was by enforcing this rule, the referee became the main news item and the match itself became irrelevant. Referee Bill Harrigan has an annoying habit of pulling up plays depending on his mood. This wouldn't be so bad in itself, referees are just human afterall but in Bill's case, he has a history of getting obsessive about certain activities to the point where he makes it a personal quest.
I know this may sound stupid and I'm sure that things were not planned it such a way. However, I look at ref Bill and his style of match work and I am stunned beyond belief as to how anyone could consider him to be the game's top ref.
Nevertheless, it appears that Bills' reign is drawing to a close. He has upset just too many people too many times. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some Rugby League fans simply refuse to watch a game where Bill is in attendance. The word is that many are simply sick to death of watching a referee shove the game aside and take centre stage.
There are still some of us out there who subscribe to the view that referees should not be seen or heard throughout the match. Indeed, a good referee is the one who isn't noticed by the audience. If that was the main criteria, Bill can only be described as the worst referee in the League.
Regardless of how he conducts himself for the rest of the year, it does appear that Bill has found the top of that slippery slope into inevitable retirement from on-field activities.
I wonder if in 30 years from now, when the threat of legal action has passed by, will future ex-players talk about ref Bill with the same derision that is exhibited by some current ex-players when the name Darcy Lawler is mentioned.
This article contains extracts from an article written in May 2000 by the same author