A workplace relations tribunal has heard claims former referees boss Bernard Sutton wanted one of his match officials to be so embarrassed after a running test he would retire.
NRL referee felt victimised over accent and Cody Ramsey ‘try’ blunder
By Adam PengillyNovember 29, 2021 — 5.00am
An NRL referee said he felt victimised and was left with mental and physical health issues after accusing a former referees boss of telling him his accent wasn’t helping on the field before being ordered to do an off-season fitness test designed to embarrass him into retiring.
Former whistleblower Tim Alouani-Roby tendered the evidence to a workplace relations tribunal during an unfair dismissal claim, which also heard ex-NRL referees chief Bernard Sutton used the referee as “a scapegoat” for an embarrassing NRL Nines bungle last year.
The Fair Work Commission earlier this month dismissed the claim from Alouani-Roby, an English referee who was sponsored by the NRL to come to Australia in 2015, ruling his contract was allowed to expire at the end of 2020.
Alouani-Roby, 32, was one of two referees who didn’t have their full-time deals extended into this year.
But the Fair Work judgment said it preferred the evidence of Alouani-Roby, and a number of supporting witness statements, over the NRL and Sutton on disputed issues, including criticism from Sutton of the referee’s English accent and a subterfuge running test.
The NRL, Sutton and head of football Graham Annesley were all listed as respondents for the Fair Work case. The NRL vehemently defended the claims.
Former NRL referee Tim Alouani-Roby.
Alouani-Roby submitted to the tribunal that Sutton employed a “demanding and no-compromise management style” and he was victimised because he was a member of a referees union, of which most full-time whistleblowers were, apart from Sutton’s two brothers, Gerard and Chris.
Sutton has since been employed by Racing NSW to run a retired thoroughbred property on the mid-north coast, while working rugby league consultancy roles with the Melbourne Storm and Queensland State of Origin side.
Alouani-Roby’s legal counsel argued Sutton had told other senior members of the referees department that Alouani-Roby was “being soft again” and directing that he “not get away with [it]“.
But Alouani-Roby said he felt pressured to perform at the start of the 2018 pre-season - months after Sutton had taken over as the NRL’s referees boss - despite returning from an off-season holiday to Vietnam with an illness.
Former NRL referees boss Bernard Sutton. CREDIT: WOLTER PEETERS
Fair Work was made aware of claims Sutton said Alouani-Roby’s English accent “wasn’t helping either” regarding on-field communication, the same month the referee was dropped from a pocket referee role.
He had been involved in a Magic Round game in which a tackle count was wrong.
Sutton subsequently expressed “concern” for Alouani-Roby’s contract in a “friendly chat” late in the 2019 season, and days later the former referees boss told one of his senior staff members he wanted a yo-yo running test to be conducted on referees not involved with finals games.
The staff member argued it wouldn’t be a good baseline for pre-season testing given most referees’ training loads had eased, as well as posing an injury risk.
But the tribunal’s judgment included claims Sutton ordered it go ahead, with contents of one Sutton conversation including: “The real reason for the yo-yo test is to make Tim [Alouani]-Roby aware of his level of fitness within the group. I want to make him feel uncomfortable to the extent he will retire on his own”.
Former NRL referee Tim Roby.CREDIT:NRL IMAGERY
Alouaini-Roby met Sutton days later with an improvement plan for his performance and he was given a contract for the 2020 season, only to be involved in a controversial call in the Perth Nines event.
St George Illawarra’s Cody Ramsey scored an after-the-siren try to eliminate the Panthers in a quarter-final, but replays clearly showed the ball was grounded outside the field of play after he caught a Ben Hunt crossfield kick. The NRL didn’t use video replays for the Nines.
Alouani-Roby was acting as the in-goal judge in the game, and thought the sideline official and referee Ben Cummins had greater responsibility for the call.
But he said Sutton “unfairly singled him out for the error” and called him to his office to provide detailed statistics about Alouani-Roby’s “lack of urgency” and cited his perceived lack of pace as “a serious concern”.
Cody Ramsey about to ground the ball beyond the deadball line in the 2020 NRL Nines in Perth.CREDIT:GETTY
The referee later lodged a complaint with the NRL’s human resources department about being made a “scapegoat” for the stuff-up.
Evidence tabled to Fair Work said Alouani-Roby phoned Sutton in June last year to warn him there was a small chance he could be slightly late for a training session as he was signing loan documents for a property purchase, only for Sutton to message 35 minutes later asking him to log in to a video conference.
He was told in the webinar he wouldn’t be receiving a contract for the 2021 season.
Alouani-Roby started stress leave the next month and refused to concede to the NRL he had resigned from his role, rather arguing he was leaving under duress.
An NRL media release issued in October last year said Sutton was stepping down from his role after the end-of-season State of Origin series because “the time was right to move on”.
Alouani-Roby’s contract ended last November. He declined to comment on the case, but indicated he was likely to appeal the Fair Work finding.
Sutton was contacted for comment.