Changes to the way referees will control matches have convinced Matt Cecchin to return to the NRL ranks after visa complications and a decision by Super League clubs to postpone the introduction of two whistleblowers scuttled his plans to move to England.
After Cecchin twice had his visa application to referee in Super League rejected by the UK Government as match officials aren’t classified as professional sportspeople, the Rugby Football League tailored a job as Two Referee Technical Executive specifically for the 45-year-old.
Cecchin had agreed to a two-year deal with an option for another 12 months, had his dog immunised and had begun selling furniture when advised this week the job no longer existed after clubs decided to indefinitely delay the adoption of the NRL’s two-referee model.
RFL head of match officials Steve Ganson had wanted Cecchin to oversee a trial of the system in reserve grade this season before the introduction of two referees in Super League in 2020. He would also referee Super League matches.
"We felt that was just going to be a formality for me to get a visa but we didn’t know the Super League clubs would decide to change their stance on two refs," Cecchin said.
"I got a call this Monday night to say that Super League have cancelled the two-ref option for reserve grade this season and they are unsure when they will bring it in for the Super League so based on that there was no possible way of me getting a visa."
While waiting for his visa, Cecchin has been in regular contact with new NRL head of elite football operations Graham Annesley and he immediately advised him of his desire to resume refereeing after last year quitting because of the constant abuse and disillusionment with the way match officials were instructed to control games.
Cecchin, who received death threats after correctly disallowing a late Tonga try in their 2017 World Cup semi-final defeat by England, revealed how he had a discussion in Melbourne with Cameron Smith amid the fallout from last season’s controversial Storm-Sharks match in which he blew 37 penalties.
"Cam pointed at me and said ‘why don’t you just referee the way you have done’. I said Cameron, it is important as a squad that we all referee the same way. He accepted that," Cecchin said.
However, he readily admits he didn’t like the style of refereeing in the NRL last season and decided to move to England as Super League is the only other professional competition in the world.
"Coming off the England-Tonga game there was the trauma caused by that and there was the change required by me last year to officiate the way that wasn’t natural to me," he said.
"It was important to me to referee the way all the other squad members did, it would have been easy for me to be the outlier and say I am going to do what I have always done but that is not fair on the other referees or the players or the teams that require a different approach.
"That was part of the attraction of going to England, the way that they officiate over there is very different to the way we did last year. From what I have heard and the discussions I have had with squad members there is a definite shift in the way we are going to officiate this year and that style of refereeing suits my natural game."
After outlining the toll of the abuse and criticism of referees in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, Cecchin said the support he received was overwhelming – including a phone call from former ARL CEO John Quayle.
He has also been doing charity work with Pass It On Clothing and joked a lot of homeless people in Martin Place now wear NRL polo shirts.
Before committing to returning to the NRL, he spoke at length to his sports therapist and also sought the backing of his fiancé, Brent.
"In the last seven years he has seen the highs and lows," Cecchin said. "Last year was really tough for us, I asked him how he felt about last year and he said 'helpless'. He doesn’t know that he was a tremendous help, but he was.”
Cecchin insisted the NRL had not simply become a fallback for him after being unable to work in England and said he was now aiming to regain his mantle as the game’s No.1 referee.
"I’m sure that in my first game back in the NRL, half the people are going to think ‘why didn’t you retire’. That’s never going to change," he said.
"I just want to keep doing this for as long as I am able to and love it, and for as long as the game will have me. If you had asked me 12 months ago I might have given a very different answer and that is how important mental health is."
Annesley said Cecchin would undergo a physical assessment next week and it would be determined whether he is appointed to a Telstra Premiership match in the opening round or makes his return through the NSWRL’s Canterbury Cup competition.