Veteran NRL reporter Phil Rothfield has labelled referee Ashley Klein a "protected species" despite the top whistleblower being axed for on-field duties in this weekend's NRL preliminary finals. Klein came under fire from across the league world after a pair of hugely controversial calls in Melbourne's semi-final victory over the Roosters last week.
The veteran referee - who has been entrusted with grand finals and State of Origin games in the past - failed to blow for a knock-on from Storm hooker Harry Grant when the Roosters were on the attack, with Melbourne going up the other to score a try moments later. Klein also opted against penalising Sam Walker for a high shot on Grant in the dying stages of the match, when the Storm were trailing by one point.
On Monday, NRL head of football Graham Annesley refused to confirm or deny whether Klein would remain as one of the referees for the two finals games on Friday and Saturday. He axing was confirmed on Tuesday. Speaking on NRL 360 on Monday night though, Rothfield revealed that Klein was set to be demoted to the Bunker this weekend after his high-profile errors.
Annesley confirmed that the referee had apologised to Roosters players after admitting his mistake around the Grant knock-on, and said the NRL would confirm its refereeing appointments for the two preliminary finals on Tuesday. Klein was the referee in charge of last year's grand final as well as the last two Origin series and Rothfield claimed his experience in big games had shielded him from criticism in the past.
Ashley Klein labelled a 'protected species'
“Ashley Klein has always been seen as a little bit of a protected species... he’s made errors in the past that haven’t been treated as seriously as other referees who have made mistakes,” Rothfield said on NRL 360. “The reason being, is because he’s done well in the big games, grand finals, Test matches, State of Origin.
“So I am applauding the NRL for making him accountable and picking two form referees this weekend, (Adam) Gee and Grant Atkins. It hasn’t always been like that and I’ve had plenty of blues (with the NRL) about some referees (getting special treatment).
“Ashley Klein can handle big moments but he had a shocker the other night.” When asked by NRL 360 host Braith Anasta whether Klein's expected demotion this weekend will rule him out of contention to referee the grand final, Rothfield suggested the veteran official's role would now be in the Bunker for the remainder of the finals series.
“Well I would think he can’t, but look he’s going to be in the Bunker this weekend and that’s a really smart move,” Rothfield said. “Take him out of the heat of being on show in the middle and put him in the Bunker, he’s very good at that and I hope he does the grand final from the Bunker.”
It's since emerged in the aftermath of the Storm's semi-final victory that Klein has copped nasty abuse from angry fans on social media. League journalist and NRL 360 panelist Brent Read conceded that while Klein probably deserved to be dropped for his performance, he did not deserve to be subjected to such disgusting on social media.
“It’s a hard one though because a good player has a shocker and they’re still picked in first grade the next week,” Read said. “He’s had a bad game, and I agree he doesn’t deserve to be there, but it is really harsh on one bad game. I hope the NRL is looking after Ashley now as well because he copped a lot of flak on the weekend.”
Sign up to our newsletter and score the biggest sport stories of the week.