IN CHECKING his own comments on match officials last night, the Gold Coast coach John Cartwright unwittingly revealed a new NRL crackdown aimed at further protecting under-fire match officials from criticism.
The Titans were the victims of a seismic shift of momentum in the first half of their 22-18 loss to South Sydney when the video referee, Sean Hampstead, denied them a try and then two minutes later awarded one to the Rabbitohs. Both decisions, in which the actions of Souths' second-rower Chris McQueen were pivotal, were contentious.
Even with the benefit of those calls, South Sydney's coach Michael Maguire joined Des Hasler, Geoff Toovey and Jamie Lyon in saying he feared the impact of refereeing gaffes on the finals and that he wanted to meet officials to discuss the issue.
Asked about the tries - taken away from David Mead and given to Justin Hunt - Cartwright said: ''I don't even know what I can say, to be honest with you. I got an email through the week that there's some new things you can and can't talk about, so I'd rather not talk about the referees. They're copping a hard time as it is.''
Last night the Herald contacted the NRL's director of football operations, Nathan McGuirk, who admitted the restrictions on post-match comments had been tightened up ''a little bit''.
He said the circular sent to coaches was a response to South Sydney's complaints that St George Illawarra's coach, Steve Price, had prejudiced the judiciary hearing into Greg Inglis's conduct by comparing Inglis's hit on Dean Young to an incident earlier in the season.
''We have addressed comments by coaches after matches which involved judiciary proceedings and also what we might deem excessive criticism of match officials,'' McGuirk said. Previously, it was generally accepted that match officials were open to any criticism as long as their integrity was not questioned.
''We are still comfortable with the decisions of match officials being criticised. We are still comfortable with someone saying referees should be accountable, that sort of thing. What we are attempting to address is emotional outbursts without any reason,'' McGuirk said.
From the match officials' point of view, the crackdown comes at a crucial time: Canterbury's Hasler and Manly's Toovey raised their concerns at the weekend about confusion over several rule interpretations, heading into the finals. Yesterday they were joined by Maguire, who said: ''It works both ways.
''I just hope we're not sitting here talking about decisions. I think coaches, over the last few weeks, have probably emphasised everything about the refs. Obviously [there's] some interesting ones out there again. I'll go through the right channels this week and talk to them about that.
''I just hope it doesn't hurt us at some stage … all teams. As coaches, we have to look at performing at our best. When you've got decisions against you, in the light of what happened out there today, it can swing games very quickly.''
Maguire was upset that officials missed Gold Coast's William Zillman stepping on the touchline and Jamal Idris knocking on as he picked up the ball after a David Taylor break, among other calls. ''There probably wasn't confusion in the ones we were looking at,'' he said.
But there was a contradiction in the league reacting to South Sydney's complaints about the game's rules not being enforced. When the Herald approached centre Dylan Farrell for an interview as he left Skilled Park last night, he said ''we're not allowed''.
Under new media guidelines, individuals can refuse interview requests but blanket media bans, if proven, are punishable by fines. A Souths' official, speaking informally, denied any such edict had been given but confirmed Maguire wanted his players to keep a low profile in the lead-up to Friday's marquee game against Manly.
One area in which Souths were consistent with their own public utterances was when the captain Michael Crocker was asked about Sam Burgess being booked for a high tackle on Zillman.
''I've got no comment,'' he said, and nor should he after the way his club vilified Price.