The last time Graham Annesley worked for the NRL, the Rugby League Central building that houses the game’s administration didn’t exist but there is a plaque with his name on it by the main entrance.
"Most people just walk past and don’t read it," Annesley said during his first interview since NRL CEO Todd Greenberg convinced him to return as head of elite football.
Since refereeing the first St George v Canberra clash at Kogarah in round five of the 1982 NSWRL premiership, Annesley has had a lengthy association with the game except for the three years he spent in NSW politics as the Liberal Party MP for Miranda.
Even then, he had some indirect involvement as the NSW Minister for Sport and Recreation. Annesley performed the official opening of RLC on February 10, 2012, along with Federal Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, Anthony Albanese, who is a South Sydney life member.
After walking away from his role at the NRL eight years ago for politics, Annesley never thought he would return until Greenberg approached him about leaving the Gold Coast Titans, where he had been CEO since 2013, to head up a restructured football department.
As a former leading referee, the game’s first video referee, NRL chief operating officer and Titans CEO, he is uniquely placed for the position.
"I am not going to be the quasi referees' coach," Annesley said. "Bernard Sutton is still going to be responsible for coaching referees and assessing performances.
"My job is to provide the policy and operational direction that the game requires for them to implement in a way that delivers against the NRL strategic plan of exciting, open and entertaining football to the extent that the clubs allow that to happen by the way they play the game."
However, Annesley was openly critical of the way the game was refereed at the start of last season and one of his first decisions has been to ensure Sutton – NRL senior manager of officiating - reports directly to him rather than Tony Archer, who has been given a new role focused on officiating pathways and development.
Having refereed 244 first-grade matches, as well as finals, State of Origin and Tests, Annesley has a clear idea of how the game should be officiated to encourage entertaining football.
"In saying that, I have to make it absolutely clear that that is not an open invitation to teams that they can break the rules and they won’t be penalised for it," Annesley said.
"I am not naïve enough to think that some teams won’t push the boundaries or that there will be some teams that offend in some areas more than others but my job, and the job of the referees' coaches, is to work with those clubs behind the scenes and warn them of the consequences of their ways.
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"For example, I don’t believe that a lopsided penalty count is necessarily a bad thing as long as we can show that a team has warranted that outcome and the other team wasn’t doing the same thing because the focus then goes on to that team to conform so that they don’t continue to offend."
Annesley also believes publicly declared crackdowns achieve little other than putting the spotlight on the performance of match officials.
"My criticism in the first half of the year was about the way it was implemented on the field is that it was more to a pre-determined plan that was rolled out in every single game regardless of what happened in that game," he said.
"It was only when Todd intervened halfway through the year and issued his instructions to referees that it got better in the latter part of the year.
"My philosophy on officiating games is that the job of the match official is to stay out of the game as much as possible, to the extent that the teams allow them to stay out of it.
"In other words, there are some games where the teams co-operate well, don't push the rules to the limit and the referee is able to take a back seat and let the players take centre stage.
"There are other games which are much more difficult to referee, where they are pushing the boundaries, where they are more physical and that requires a different approach from the referees."
Annesley’s role also includes overseeing the Telstra Premiership, including the rules, dealing with the clubs through their CEOs and coaches, judiciary, match review, bunker operations and the NRL Holden Women’s Premiership.
"Officiating is probably the most public component but it is not the whole role," he said. "My job isn’t to sit on Bernard Sutton’s shoulder, my job is to make sure he carries out the game’s objectives."