Death threats and ongoing criticism force Cecchin to quit the NRL

“My son got hit, my partner got hit and my mum got hit with death threats,” Cecchin, 44, reveals. “I started thumbing through my phone and there were more than a thousand messages. They were vile. I’ve never had that before in my whole career, even after Origins and grand finals. When I got home to Sydney, our house was put on alert. I was picked up from the airport by the AFP. It was really, really serious. I don’t like attention as a referee. I want to do my job without any fuss and then leave. The reality is that after that game, and for the first chunk of this year with all the noise that’s been out there, it’s been tough. Really, really tough.”

Then he adds this: “Imagine if I got the call wrong?”

Cecchin will referee his 300th NRL game this Sunday when Penrith play Canberra at Panthers Stadium and it will be one of his last. He’ll retire at the end of the season, possibly heading to the Super League in the UK if an opportunity arises. If it doesn’t, he won’t referee again and he won’t stay involved with rugby league.

“I’m done,” he says.

Cecchin has spoken in the past about his battle with mental illness, explaining to Fairfax Media last year how he almost faked an injury because he didn’t want to take control of a match at Shark Park because of his anxiety.

“I feel bad when I f..k up,” he says. “I take it to heart if I don’t referee well.”

But this season has been different. This season has been so heavy he’s needed to talk twice a day to his sport therapist, Rosie Stanimirovic. The NRL’s head of football, Brian Canavan, checks in daily.

The “noise” started with the World Cup semi-final but then ramped up when he became the face of Greenberg’s tough edict to enforce a stricter interpretation of the play-the-ball with more use of the sin-bin when necessary.

Cecchin blew 33 penalties in the round-four match against Cronulla and Melbourne. The players became so frustrated that a fight erupted.

Perception is everything in this game. Many of us assumed it was Cecchin’s way of making a point to referees bosses Tony Archer and Bernard Sutton that he didn’t agree with the penalty blitz; that he was frustrated about being told how to do a job he’s been doing since 2001; that it confirmed he was on the outer as Sutton handed headline matches to his brother, Gerard, ahead of Cecchin, who some believe is the best referee since Bill Harrigan.

“I wouldn’t have the balls to use a game of rugby league to stick it up anyone,” Cecchin laughs. “I was just trying to do the best I could in an environment that was new to me. Because of my position in the squad, I had to conform because I didn’t want to be the outlier. I could’ve easily said, ‘No, I want to referee the way I’ve always wanted and the way I’ve been successful’. But it would be unfair on the rest of the squad to not referee consistently. To do that, it was to my own personal detriment but I’ve got no regrets because we stayed together and stuck close.”

A few days after that match, Cecchin and Bernard Sutton flew to Melbourne for a Storm training session.

“Sorry about the fight at the end,” Melbourne captain Cameron Smith said to Cecchin.

“Cam, I wanted to join you,” Cecchin laughed back. “I was frustrated as well.”

Cecchin tells you all this earlier this week over coffee outside an inner-city café, completely content with his decision. Simply, he feels free.

“Just the noise affects me now,” he says. “In the past, when it has, Rosie and I have a chat, she dusts me off and I go out and do an Origin or grand final until my next mistake. Her and I came to the decision after Origin I that I’m done. And since I’ve made that call, my refereeing seems a lot better.

“I need a long break. Bagging the refs — and even though a lot of the press has been complimentary about me, especially after Origin I — it made me feel like a leper with the squad.

“Bernie met with me before Origin I and said I would be in the pocket [in an NRL match] that weekend, and I left that meeting feeling good because I knew why I didn’t get Origin and what I had to do to improve. When it comes to that, I am OK. The problem after that is the noise. When that noise started, and when I started feeling bad for Gerry [Sutton] and Ash [Klein], that’s when I hit rock bottom. They got no accolades after Origin I at all and that’s because the game was in meltdown about me not getting it.”

Time for the hard questions …

Are the referees divided? At war with each other?

“I want to say that any journalist or commentator is welcome to come into our office and they will see a group of guys who work hard with each other, are competitive with each other, and like each other a heap. I’ve known Ash and Gerry for 10 years. They are good, good friends.”

They’re your fellow referees. What about Archer and Bernard Sutton, your bosses?

“I’ve had eight different refs coaches. I’ve had dramas and barneys with all of them. That’s the type of person I am. But those conversations have to be kept private. If either one of us is fearful of that getting out, people don’t talk. When they don’t talk, you can’t progress. You talk about morale. There’s no problem at all. The noise gets to you when you aren’t there. And that’s when it affects your family and relationships.”

Did they accuse you in a meeting about leaking to the media? Do you leak to the media?

“I’ve had private conversations with all my coaches and that’s how I want to keep it. I’ve never gone outside the referees’ walls and said something that I shouldn’t. And that’s the real disappointing thing. Whoever the boss is, the decision is final.”

What if one of the bosses is making decisions about his own brother?

“Bernie will put the best referees in the best game, to make him look as good as possible. That’s reality.”

Are the refs confused? Being overloaded with information? Are there too many voices in their ear from The Bunker and match-day coaches?

“The game is so technical now. When I first started, you had a knock-on, a forward pass, a slow tackle or a high tackle. Now you’ve got “dominants” and “surrenders” and “spinning” and “peeling” and “grappling” and “upright tackles”. It’s terribly complicated. As officials, we have to adjudicate under that pressure. You need that information. I’m asking for information.”

Some will dismiss these responses as guff. Sitting across from Cecchin, it sounds sincere.

“It’s not guff, mate,” he insists. “All this criticism about the referees is just pulling us together because all we’ve got is each other. We’re all judged as a collective on one person’s stuff up.

“The only thing I’ve really strongly asked for with Todd is a full-time sports psych next year for the referees. If Cameron Smith played under the pressure of knowing that if he knocked on and cost his side the game he would definitely be dropped the next week, what sort of player would he be? I know that if I stuff up enough, I am not there next week. So when they say we’re not accountable, that’s crap. We’re one decision away from being dropped. There’s no player that has that.”

Cecchin first picked up a whistle when one was thrown to him by his PE teacher at Holy Cross College Ryde when he was 12. The teacher was Ronnie Palmer, the iconic trainer who has worked at several clubs.

Cecchin got his referees ticket the following week and became so obsessed with the job he would pretend to officiate the State Bank Big Game and Panasonic Cup in front of the TV in his lounge-room.

His first-grade debut came in 2001, between the Tigers and Cowboys at Leichhardt Oval, and the role of the referee has changed as much since then as the game itself.

He was told by former referees boss Robert Finch in 2003 he had to start speaking to players with greater respect or he’d be a linesman for the rest of his career. Now, many players tell you he’s the referee they respect the most.

When Cecchin revealed in an interview in 2012 that he was gay, becoming the only rugby league figure since Ian Roberts in the 1990s to come out publicly, he received warm support from the players.

“Nate Myles was beside me in a scrum and said, ‘Good on you, Cech, for your article. It was really brave’,” he recalls. “It just has not been an issue. I think people think of me as a ref, not the gay ref. I’ve never heard one comment from anyone in the crowd.”

So what of the theory that he is on the outer with Archer and Sutton because of his sexuality? “That lasted for a day and if it lasted any longer I would’ve come out publicly and addressed it,” he says. “I’ve been camping with the Sutton boys. Arch was the first person I came out to when we were both in the squad. It’s not an issue.”

Something that’s helped Cecchin through this season has been the charity Pass It On, which provides clothing directly to the homeless.

When we find Cecchin and his partner, Brent, at Martin Place on Tuesday, he is wearing an NRL referees hoodie — and hearing the same one-liners that he might at Panthers Stadium this Sunday.

“You’ve cost me money the last three weeks!” says one person. “Better ref than that Bill Harrigan,” offers another.

We all stand around and argue about the Ricky Leutele no-try in the Sharks-Broncos match a week earlier. “I think they got it right,” Cecchin says.

“I love coming here,” he says later. “Chris Vagg [the founder of the charity] reached out to me at a time when I was struggling. Come along, it will be good for you. And I did and I’ve been here most Tuesday nights since.

“They are people who just love talking to you. And they have a really good knowledge of our game. They take the mickey and motivate me. There’s always a big chunk of Bulldogs supporters and they won last weekend. I said, ‘If they lose you won’t see me for a month: I’ll send Brent along’.”

Cecchin can laugh off this sort of noise but his departure should send a deeper message to the rest of the game about how we scrutinise our match-day officials.

“It’s gone too far,” Cecchin says. “How much better could we be if the environment was a little bit more positive? If a ref could go out there knowing he’s got to work hard but if he makes a bad call it won’t be the end of the world?”

Not everyone is sad to see him go, though. A woman approaches him.

“Can I have that hoodie when you piss off to Super League?” she asks.

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