Six years after officiating his last Super League match, Phil Bentham is returning to rugby league and bringing experience from a different sport with him which he aims to utilise to improve standards at all levels.

The 52-year-old is currently working his notice with football’s Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL), where he has spent the past two years as Video Assistant Referee (VAR) coach, ahead of replacing Steve Ganson as the RFL’s head of match officials.

Bentham spent nearly 13 years as an elite-level referee, making his competition debut in a 32-30 win for Hull FC away to Wakefield Trinity in September 2005, and has learnt plenty of from his round-ball counterparts he believes will be applicable for rugby league officials from Super League to the Barrow and District League.

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“The first thing is the size of the organisation I’ve worked for,” Bentham said. “PGMOL is just for elite-level match officials in the professional game, so as you can imagine their support service in terms of psychology, performance support, services, the way they assess referees, it’s mind-blowing the details they can go into.

“I can bring an element of that, with the right team together, in rugby league to advance our match officials. That should work at all levels.

“We should be able to get all levels performing better by assessing them in a different way and one of those is to look at holistic assessment of a referee. So, rather than how did they do for 80 minutes, and it starts at 100 points and gets deducted for every mistake they make, it looks at the whole person.

“The other part of it in terms of the VAR is making sure now we have six video refs, and every game is now on an equal standing, how can we enhance our video ref product, so it fits the game in the best way but also provides us with more accurate decision-making?”

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Jake Wardle was deemed to have scored a try following a video referee review in Wigan Warriors’ World Club Challenge win over Penrith Panthers.

Bentham’s experience of working with and serving as a video referee in rugby league was part of the reason he was appointed as VAR coach with the body responsible for overseeing Premier League officials.

Whereas Super League has had a video referee since it was introduced for the start of the summer era in 1996, initially just to adjudicate on ‘try or no try’ and now covering a variety of on-field incidents and being in use for every game, football’s top-flight in England did not have VAR until 2019/20.

It has not been without controversy, but even after nearly three decades in use in rugby league there are still talking points provoked by video referee decisions – including recently the award of the crucial try by Jake Wardle in Wigan Warriors’ 16-12 win over Penrith Panthers in the World Club Challenge.

Bentham backed on-field referee Liam Moore and video referee Chris Kendall over their decision-making on that occasion, but conceded one area the governing body could improve is explaining how and why contentious decisions are reached.

It’s mind-blowing the details [PGMOL] can go into. I can bring an element of that, with the right team together, in rugby league to advance our match officials. That should work at all levels.

Incoming RFL head of match officials Phil Bentham

“In terms of match decisions and tries, we have to have a period where the referee gets to give their opinion and the video referee gets to give their opinion in the review process,” Bentham said.

“On the back of that, we also have certain calls which would need some immediate input in terms of the media to kind of quieten down, or just accept sometimes we got it wrong. If we put [the Wardle try] on now, I would guess we would probably be split 50-50 as to whether they were tries or not, which make them very subjective calls.

“The immediate thing I did was to phone Liam Moore, who confirmed on the Wardle try the ball is on the line when he gets there, hence he sends it up as a try and they have to find if there is any sufficient evidence to overturn the call.

“It’s factual the ball is on the line. Could we get the message out quicker? We probably could and that would help us in that situation.”

One area Bentham will not be pushing for change in, however, is officials being able to officiate their hometown clubs. Regulations preventing them from doing so were relaxed for the 2008 season, whereas football maintains a strict policy of appointing ‘neutral’ officials.

Referee Phil Bentham shows the red card to Wigan Warriors Ben Flower (2nd left) during the First Utility Super League Grand Final match at Old Trafford, Manchester. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Saturday October 11, 2014. See PA story RUGBYL Super. Photo credit should read Martin Rickett/PA Wire. RESTRICTIONS: Editorial use only. No commercial use. No false commercial association. No video emulation. No manipulation of images.
Image:Phil Bentham shows the red card to Wigan’s Ben Flower in the 2014 Super League Grand Final

Bentham knows from personal experience of refereeing hometown club Leigh Leopards at times in his career how perception can work both ways – he was often being accused of over-penalising them in an effort to show he was not biased in their favour.

“I’m 100 per cent happy with the way it’s run in rugby league,” Bentham said. “They’ve got a large selection pool in football so they can make those decisions and avoid people refereeing their hometowns.

“In rugby league, we haven’t got those numbers, and the other side of that is that I also think it questions the integrity of the referee. I can tell you from experience, I’ve refereed England and when you get on that pitch it’s white against black or green and gold – that’s how you referee.

“You’re not even thinking ‘I’m refereeing England against New Zealand’, you just referee the incidents which come up in front of you. I would never question the integrity and I’ve got no intention to change that.”

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Daniel and Jacob Saifiti attempted but failed to trick an NRL referee during a sin-bin decision.

With every Super League match now having a video referee present for the first time in 2024, Bentham is eager to open up the decision-making process so fans in the stadium have the same insight as those watching on television.

However, the two-time Grand Final referee’s ambitions to follow the NRL in that regard may be limited by the cost and logistical challenges.

“To get it within the stadium operationally would be a big project, but that’s a really good point because at the moment you could argue you’ve got a better experience of the referee’s decision-making if you don’t go to the game,” Bentham said.

“It’s something which is on my to-do list and look at as whether it’s feasible for us to do that. I think it goes down pretty well in Australia, doesn’t it? So, it’s something we would need to look at from a logistics point of view.”

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