N.R.L. Coaches back Billy Harrigan

Coaches have rallied to support axed referee Bill Harrigan, saying his demotion from first grade is an over-reaction by the National Rugby League.

Harrigan was dropped from this weekend's round after NRL management reviewed his handling of Friday's Parramatta-Newcastle match, during which he sent Eels players to the sinbin four times. One player was binned twice.

Parramatta were reduced to 10 players at one stage and lost the match 24-18, denting their chances of a top-four finish.

Although NRL referees' boss Peter Louis initially defended Harrigan's actions, he had a change of heart after watching a video of the match with chief executive David Gallop and operations manager Graham Annesley yesterday.

"There are certainly issues within the match that required such [sinbin] action, but there is also a clear view that towards the end of the game there were some options taken that could have been taken differently," Louis said.

The move to drop the league's premier referee was questioned by coaches, including the Warriors' Daniel Anderson.

"Premier players get a second chance - referees should be the same," said Anderson, a former coach at the Eels.

Roosters coach Ricky Stuart, who played under Harrigan, said the demotion set a dangerous precedent.

"There could be a referee dropped every week. You know he won't have a repeat performance next week - he's our best referee by a hundred miles."

Newcastle coach Michael Hagan agreed after viewing the tape that sending off "three or four was a bit harsh".

Parramatta coach Brian Smith yesterday appealed for Harrigan to apologise for accusations that the Eels deliberately slowed down the play-the-ball.

Kiwis and Parramatta captain Nathan Cayless also sent a letter to Gallop and Louis seeking an apology from Harrigan for claiming Eels players made disparaging remarks about him on the field.

Parramatta chief executive Denis Fitzgerald welcomed the decision to drop Harrigan, but was concerned about his attitude to the club in future.

"We hadn't had one player sent to the sinbin all year, and then to have four in one game is beyond belief."

Harrigan also criticised the Eels in their first match with Newcastle last month, claiming one of the players swore at him after he awarded a penalty to the Knights.

Harrigan has controlled 357 first-grade games, 18 Origin matches and eight grand finals since his first top-level game, in 1986.