Fact-finding mission: Ashley Synnott of the AIS and former NRL referee Steve Clark are heading to the US to present to a major conference about the AIS scholarship program for officials. Photo: Rohan ThomsonAt a time when the NRL is looking to borrow ideas such as the “bunker” from US sports, the American leagues are equally interested to learn from how rugby league whistleblowers go about their business.
The NRL’s referee development manager Steve Clark has been invited to be one of the keynote speakers at the prestigious Sports Officiating Summit in St Louis. Clark is part of a delegation organised by the Australian Sports Commission’s co-presenter Ashley Synnott, who works closely with the NRL and other sporting bodies in running the Australian Institute of Sport’s national officiating scholarships programs. The conference will be attended by heavy-hitters from all of the major US pro sports including the NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL and soccer. The pair will also meet powerbrokers from each of the sports in separate meetings on either side of the conference to exchange ideas about officiating at the highest levels after the AIS arranged for the NRL to come along and expose them to the movers and shakers overseas.
NRL referees are among the most maligned officials in world sport and the scrutiny from fans and media is particularly intense. However, their performances, training methods and scholarship programs are now being internationally recognised after Synnott made a presentation at a conference last year in France, which included a video package from Clark.
“We’re keen to learn and also showcase what we do because, from a development point of view, what we do with our officials is [considered best practice],” Clark said.
“The Sports Commission have told us our academy is second to none in all of the sports they deal with.
“The overseas sports are interested in our philosophy of treating officials like athletes. They get physical training like an athlete does, they get the preparation like an athlete does, they get dietary and psychological training like a first-grade rugby league player. They are getting the best preparation and opportunity to make it.
“The message we give is that we can have people who can referee, but we need well-rounded individuals so they can handle all of the ups and downs, the positives and negatives. It’s about staying up every week and delivering the best possible performance.”
Since the NRL and the Australian Institute of Sport combined in the scholarship program three years ago, the majority of recipients have received full or part-time contracts from the league. Belinda Sleeman is one of the success stories and last year become the first woman to patrol a touchline in a first-grade fixture. The programs encourage female participation in a bid to provide as many opportunities as possible for aspiring officials to reach the top level.
“These kids in the academy are mentored and trained by first graders, so when they get into the NRL it won’t be a shock, they know what they need to face,” Clark said.
“They see it, live it, breathe it.”
After being invited to the American conference, the Sports Commission aims to run a similar workshop in Australia next year, which would bring all the major US sporting bodies and officials to the country.
Synnott said the programs exposed aspiring officials to nutrition programs, behavioural and intelligence profiling, social media courses and dealt with integrity issues.
“Australia is so far in front of the world in the high-performance pathways,” Synnott said.
“Our officials need to be fit, strong, fast and good decision-makers and we have a holistic view in getting them ready.”
The ARLC will consider a recommendation regarding the feasibility of a central command centre, or “bunker”, at a board meeting next month. The NRL has conducted several bunker trials, with a call to be made whether potential improvements in efficiency and accuracy are worth the multi-million dollar expense.
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