The NRL has fired back at South Sydney coach Wayne Bennett over his criticism of the referees, saying it is up to teams and coaches not to stretch the rules.
The game's officials landed back in the spotlight after Bennett accused the whistleblowers of letting the state of the ruck slide this year following their Good Friday win over Canterbury.
Pointing to a run-in between Souths skipper Sam Burgess and Lachlan Lewis, in which the Bulldogs playmaker attempted to hold onto the Englishman's leg, he said clubs were exploiting a more lax policing of the play-the-ball.
NRL head of football Graham Annesley didn't deny the Bulldogs were allowed to get away with too much during the Rabbitohs' 14-6 win.
This year the average play-the-ball speed has been 3.46 seconds - slightly up on 3.41 secs last year.
As well, 26 per cent of all play-the-balls this year have been slower than four seconds - compared to 24 per cent last year.
He said during Friday's game, 38 per cent of play-the-balls in which the Bulldogs were the defensive side took longer than four seconds - the highest of any side in any game this year.
But Annesley denied Bennett's claim it was part of a larger game-wide trend.
"To suggest that based on one game we've got a massive problem in the NRL I think is a massive overstatement," Annesley said.
After last year's ill-fated refereeing crackdown, NRL chief executive Todd Greenberg ordered the game's whistleblowers not to nitpick and head office promised a free-flowing brand of football this year.
Penalties have fallen dramatically to 584 through the opening six rounds, compared to 857 at the same point last year.
Annesley said that if sides wanted to push the limits of the rules, they would risk running up a high penalty count and his officials had been told to referee what's in front of them.
The referees also found an unlikely ally in South Sydney skipper Sam Burgess.
Despite acknowledging that Lewis had attempted to get under his skin and slow him down, Burgess said he was happy with how the referees were controlling the contest in 2019.
"I've enjoyed the way the referees have been refereeing the game this year. I think they've done a good job," Burgess said.
"As a player, you're always fighting for every inch. I don't mind it, there were a couple out there that were a bit too long on the weekend.
"But we got the win, it didn't cost us the win. It didn't have a huge impact on the result."
Australian Associated Press