NRL’s overreaction to Paul Gallen’s punch

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The reaction to Paul Gallen’s series of innocuous punches has certainly led to a hysterical reaction from some quarters of the game.

The erudite and sardonic Eleanor Kite’s (hopefully tongue-in-cheek) opinion piece questioned the future and integrity of the game, while the normally on-the-money Curtis Woodward was lamenting the death of the game as we know it.

Another Rookie believes our great game is heading towards a game more akin to touch footy (more on that later).

There’s been a lot written about the act itself and I don’t want to rehash the various arguments here. Understandably, a lot of fans are angry at David Smith’s misguided rule change – no doubt spurred on by some frenzied sections of the media.

However, the reality is that David Smith was reacting not to the violence exhibited by Gallen in striking Myles – for, as Gallen himself points out, this has been part of Origin since the concept began (indeed, I would add that it has been part of the game since 1908).

No, what Smith and Anderson were reacting to was not the violence, but the lack of action by referees (notably Matt Cecchin) in relation to that violence.

Let’s be very clear: punching an opponent during a game has always been banned in rugby league and players who have broken this law have usually suffered the consequences of their actions.

Consequently, Gallen’s punch was nothing new – players have been belting each other since Dally Messenger strapped on his boots.

The following is the actual wording from the rugby league rulebook, Section 15, Law 1 (a), Page 38:

4. Vicious palm

The Code: The ball-carrier cannot “thrust” out an arm to contact the defender above the shoulder

Application: It is an infringement for the ball-carrier to violently punch, thrust out an arm or use an outstretched stiff arm so as to make contact with the hand or fist to the defending player’s head, neck or face.” (This section does not state that a player cannot legitimately ‘palm’ the head, neck or face).

While the wording is a little old-fashioned, the intention is clear: you cannot punch or strike a player in a game, and if you do so you are subject to certain proscribed penalties.

Of course, the penalties come in various guises, depending on the severity of the “thrust”: it may be as little as a penalty to the opposition team, or 10 minutes in the bin, or at worst a send-off.

Furthermore, nowadays the player would most likely be placed on report and, just as in days gone by, would possibly spend a stint on the sidelines.

What Paul Gallen did in Origin 1 was nothing new – players have belted each other in ordinary and representative games before, and they most certainly will in the future. What was questionable in Origin 1 was the fact that Gallen stayed on the field and didn’t enjoy a 10 minute break.

Most fans I’ve spoken to, including mad Blue’s fans, would not have objected had Cecchin sent him to the bin for a spell.

I would even go so far as to argue that, although Gallen was dirty over being suspended for a week, I’d be surprised if he would have been equally angry had he been sent to the bin for 10.

It’s most likely he would have copped that on the chin with no complaint (after all, players have been sent to the bin in Origin before, such as Jennings last year, and even the Immortal “King” Wally Lewis has been given a spell – although, he was less than happy at the time).

Arguably, had Cecchin sent Gallen off for 10 we wouldn’t be arguing over this issue still.

Everyone would have woken up on the Thursday morning after the game talking about Gallen’s punch, but we would have quickly moved on in anticipation of Origin 2, just as we did after Jennings’ (admittedly different) strike last year.

Which brings me back to Smith and Anderson’s new rule.

As far as striking goes, all the NRL had to do was instruct the referees to enforce the existing rule. Instruct the men in pink to make a decision on the ground, taking into account the merits of the incident and, most importantly, have the guts to send a player to the bin if their action deserves that punishment.

And then move on.

However, the new rule, where the refs are seemingly required to immediately send a player off for striking, is a bridge too far.

As the ruling is worded, it is potentially a gross overreaction to what I regard as nothing more than a poor refereeing decision.

Rather than applying the new rule to the letter – which could have unintended consequences – hopefully refs use their common sense and make their own judgement call – just as referees have been doing successfully for the past 100 years.

Before closing off, the final aspect I want to mention is the notion – expressed by a great many fans – that we’re turning the game of rugby league into a game for sissies.

I firmly believe that anyone who believes this is showing considerable disrespect to the players and a disregard for how brutal the game really is.

When I see two 120-kilogram giants slamming into each other with such ferocity that I can hear the collision from the grandstand; when I watch Sammie Burgess charging without fear at a defensive brick wall; when I see a player slammed into the turf with sufficient power to knock out normal mortal; I know that these footballers are made of far sterner stuff than I.

Does the ban on punching make these players any less tough? Will it turn the game into netball or a game of touch footy, as some fans have argued? Of course it won’t!

In the old days boxing troupes of professional fighters would travel to mining and farming towns in country Australia, offering cash prizes to locals who were prepared to “go a round” with a fighter in the ring.

I would suggest to anyone who questions the toughness and commitment of our players to also “go a round” with some of today’s players. I reckon most wouldn’t last a set of six.

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