August 2022

The Wildly Inconsistent NRL

The NRL can't decide whether it wants to punish players for foul play, or ignore it, and it's becoming a big problem.

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At the conclusion of round 20 in the NRL season, the match review committee reportedly spent 45 minutes working out whether to charge Melbourne’s Nelson Asofa Solomona for an elbow to the head of Warriors hooker Wayde Egan.

In the end, the committee decided the imposing prop had no case to answer. And the explanation was downright confusing.

MRC manager Luke Patten argued,

“We believe that Nelson’s right arm was diagonal from that grip, so diagonally across his chest and that there might be possible minor contact at the end of the tackle with Nelson’s forearm to possibly the neck and chin area.

“But that was only minor contact, it was a forceful tackle which unfortunately resulted in Egan’s head going into the ground.”

Which planet is the MRC on? Not only do they minimise the level of contact in the tackle which resulted in Egan having two broken teeth, they have the audacity to say “possible”.

In other words, “we’re not even sure it happened, Egan must have broken his own teeth”. 

How? The Warriors player nearly had a broken jaw and has broken teeth from this incident. It is an objective fact that Asofa Solomona made dangerous contact with his elbow to the head of an opponent.

While the MRC doesn’t take into account the outcome of an incident in determining a charge, how can it claim the elbow may not even have occurred when an injury has clearly resulted?

And how is it “minor contact”? Egan has two broken teeth.

Although, the real issue here is the MRC still looking at the level of contact. The level of contact should be the last thing looked at.

This is a deliberate elbow across the head of a defenceless player. This is a deliberate act of foul play and there was absolutely no question the elbow had contacted the jaw.

The overarching problem is that the NRL still spends far too much time arguing about “force” and “intent”.

Now sure, a limp slap across the face should receive less of a punishment than a swinging forearm to the head. 

But the focus really needs to be on any contact with the head. While we do laugh at some rulings in rugby union, that code is a lot further down the path of lowering the target area for defenders and thereby lowering impacts to the head.

NRL CEO Andrew Abdo appeared on Channel Nine’s 100% Footy recently to defend the fact that the referees and the MRC don’t seem to match up.

The key issue highlighted was Dale Finucane’s kamikaze-like hit on Stephen Crichton. He wasn’t penalised in game but was suspended after the match.

A suspension was the right decision. Finucane’s attempted tackle was dangerous and he lost control of the collision. Rugby league is a brutal enough sport without those sorts of tackles.

A similar discussion has been had recently about the now-infamous hip drop tackles. This season we’ve had hip drops result in both season ending knee injuries and broken legs.

And still we’re seeing a discussion about players just trying to do what they can to tackle a player. A defender losing his legs then loses all control of the tackle. They should not be obliged to then continue with a dangerous attempt at that tackle.

It’s like arguing it’s completely fine to hit someone in the head if they beat you with a sidestep because “well, he’s got to make the tackle, he didn’t mean it, he can’t just disappear”.

Abdo’s key argument though is that apparently foul play is down compared to last season. Although I wouldn’t be trusting the NRL on that.

We don’t know how he’s defining foul play. Is it the number of penalties during a game? Charges handed out by the MRC? Suspensions?

Graham Annesley then said acts of foul play were down this season compared to the last and so were suspensions. Which is exactly what was intended when the NRL made it harder to suspend players for acts of foul play.

And we’re seeing the results of that now.

Not just in the non-charging of Nelson Asofa-Solomona, but in the slap on the wrist handed to Jared Waerea-Hargreaves for a similar incident.

The Roosters enforcer elbowed Zac Fulton in the head, but was merely fined $3,000. Again, what planet are we living on?

The NRL will tell you one week they want to protect players’ heads. They’ll even go as far as springing a surprise, mid-season set of rule changes to do that.

The next they won’t suspend someone for a direct elbow to the head. Or Tom Burgess will cop a week for a coat hanger that wouldn’t have been out of place in the 1980s. Both incidents should have received a month.

It may have caused a ruckus and a group of ex-players claiming “the game’s gone soft”, but it would have been the right thing to do.

You also can’t trust the NRL when it even comes to classifying concussions.

Last season Graham Annesley stood up and claimed the mid-season crackdown was leading to fewer concussions.

That was until someone took a look at where he got those stats from and found he was only counting those players ruled out during games. 

Players weren’t being included in those stats if they finished a game and were then ruled out due to delayed concussion symptoms.

In fact, Brien Seeney of NRL Physio fame crunched the numbers and found that concussions were up 30 percent in 2021 on the 2020 season.

We can even go back to the start of the 2022 season to see a disconnect between on-field officials and the administration. This isn’t something that has devolved over the year. It started out with decisions that made little to no sense.

In round three, Nelson Asofa-Solomona (surprise) delivered a swinging arm to the head of Parramatta forward Makahesi Makatoa. It was missed by the on-field referee, and the Bunker only deemed it serious enough to put on report.

The MRC then declined to charge him for it. The same player has twice this year made dangerous contact to the head of the opponent and hasn’t even been charged.

Graham Annesley then came out and said everyone got it wrong. He should have been sin binned and suspended. However, given Asofa-Solomona’s elbow on Wayde Egan it seems no one was listening.

Also in round three we had Jesse Ramien and Jaydn Su’a both sin binned for Cronulla and the Dragons respectively.

Both had attempted pretty dangerous tackles that resulted in contact with the head.

Su’a received a week and Ramien was fined.

So just how can the NRL say it takes player safety seriously when contact with the head is hardly punished or not punished at all?

And not just that, but the officials charged with handing out those punishments tell us not to believe our own eyes or the objective evidence presented.

The argument that we don’t want the best players in our game suspended is a ridiculous one. 

How do you grade that? How many representative matches do you have to play before you’re protected?

Better yet, how about those players don’t break the rules?

The NRL is fast standing still when it comes to player safety and only a serious ongoing commitment to appropriately punish acts of foul play is going to address this problem.

And that punishment has to be serious suspensions because it is the only way players will look to change their approach.

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