Between rounds two and seven this season, without fans in the stands, home teams conceded 272 penalties. Away teams gave away just 237 – a difference of 35 in favour of the visiting side.
That’s a swing of 76 penalties in six rounds.
There is no suggestion referees intentionally favour home teams when fans are present but the numbers highlight the influence crowds have.
Recent scientific studies have found officials subconsciously award more penalties to the team that has the crowd behind them. Similar studies of the Premier League and Bundesliga, which have recently returned without fans, have found the same pattern.
A swing of 76 penalties in favour of away teams is extraordinary, given it was across only 48 games in six rounds.
NRL head of football Graham Annesley believes several factors could have contributed to such a large shift.
“Yes, we’re playing games in front of empty stadiums but we’ve also got a new influence in the six again,” Annesley said.
“Penalties are down overall and often penalties go with possession – teams that are dominating possession will generally receive more penalties than they concede.
“There would need to be a bit further research given the changes that have been made and some correlation looked at between possession, reduction in the number of penalties overall and venues.
“It’s probably a valid piece of work but whether it’s having a direct, subconscious impact on officials – I think we would need to see more data before we were able to reach any real conclusions.”
Another noticeable factor since crowds were removed has been the lack of verbal sparring between players and officials.
Outside of the Addin Fonua-Blake incident – which could see the Manly enforcer sidelined for three weeks – there haven’t been any notable examples of a player and referee exchanging heated words.
Annesley believes one of the main reasons for the lack of confrontations is the introduction of the captain’s challenge.
“One of the intentions of the captain’s challenge was to be able to say to captains, ‘either challenge it or let’s get on with the game’. That was definitely one of the objectives.
“But the other objective, of course, of the six again was the continuity of play.
“It doesn’t give players [a chance] to come and question referee decisions. When you’re awarding penalties in rucks, it’s almost an open opportunity for captains to come and ask what that was for to try and slow the game down.
“But when they’re just waving six again and they’re preparing for another set of six, the opportunity for them to debate the situations with referees is probably not there in the same way it was before round three.”
Sam is a sports reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.