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An even-handed look at Wade Graham

Wade Graham in happier times. (AAP Image/Craig Golding)
Expert
16th June, 2016
37
1019 Reads

Should rugby league players be suspended for minor infractions when it’s a big game on the line?

Is it fair that a man like Wade Graham, a fine upstanding citizen for all I know even though I haven’t looked into it all that closely, should miss out on his greatest dream, just because of one little high tackle?

Is suspension for a State of Origin game or grand final simply a case of applying the rules equally across all cases, or does the very fact the NRL enforces the same penalty even when the games to be missed are clearly and objectively more important mean that the rules are not being applied equally?

Can a one-match suspension for a fringe first-grader really be said to be the same punishment as a one-match suspension for a star whose next scheduled game is Origin?

These are mostly good questions, and the answers are far from simple. Many competing factors and interests must be taken into account before finally coming to a solution that can instil confidence in our own wisdom.

But let us never forget that this is not a purely theoretical equation. There are real humans involved, and real lives set to be destroyed if the game pulls the wrong lever.

New South Wales coach Laurie Daley has already said that Graham may now never play Origin, and it would be a tragedy if this bafflingly nonsensical prophecy were to come true due to an incredibly unlikely sequence of events over the next decade. And it would’ve all been because of one mistake, one tiny miscalculation that didn’t even kill anyone.

Ah, but there are two sides to every issue, and let’s look at them now.

On the one hand, Graham made a dangerous tackle and was suspended in accordance with the rules of rugby league.

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On the other hand, the tackle wasn’t that dangerous. I mean, compared to a light kick in the shins, you could say it was extremely dangerous, but compared to strangling someone, it was pretty tame, really. And when was the last time you saw someone suspended for strangling Johnathon Thurston?

But on the other other hand, Graham knew the rules going in. It’s not like he’d arrived from Ukraine that morning and only had time to learn the basics of decoy running before taking the field: he’d been playing the game for some years and was quite aware that if you attack the head, you run the risk of suspension.

On yet another hand, did he attack the head deliberately? An argument can be made that he was going for the ankles, but got confused due to the frenetic, breakneck pace of the game and the quite high number of players of roughly similar shapes on the field.

But then again, does it really matter whether it was deliberate? A man whose head is accidentally walloped by Graham’s arm is in just as much distress as a man whose head is deliberately thwacked by that gentleman’s muscular appendage. Certainly if Graham had strangled Thurston, it would be seen as a heinous act even if he’d strangled him inadvertently.

But that may be beside the point, because on another hand, in an increasingly unwieldy bunch of hands, we have to consider not just whether the crime merits punishment, but whether the punishment fits the crime. And in this case, it doesn’t.

But on the other hand, it does.

But on the other hand, it’s not just any game Graham will be missing due to this unfortunate accidental/deliberate assault. He’ll be missing Game 2 of the 2016 State of Origin series, one of the most memorable Origin encounters planned for the near future.

Also, it’s going to be played in Brisbane, which means he not only misses a game, he also misses out on a nice trip. You might think that his whack on Thurston was fully deserving of a game on the sidelines, but can we really pretend that an Origin game is equal to any other?

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On the other hand, if we go around measuring different games differently for the purposes of judiciary deliberations, does not the whole system become a hodge-podge? And how do we measure it anyway? Do we give different loadings to Origin, to City versus Country, and to Test matches?

Are grand finals to be treated differently to preliminary finals? Do we treat a player who has committed an offence while playing for a team on the bottom of the ladder differently to one at the top?

One playing in Round 1 differently to one playing in Round 22 and needing to win every remaining game to make the eight? It quickly becomes a logistical nightmare.

On the other hand, it doesn’t have to be a logistical nightmare. Just because we can’t be absolutely precise doesn’t mean we can’t make the system fairer than it already is. Origin is the pinnacle of a player’s career: we must treat it as such, and not punish players more severely than the system was actually set up to do.

On the other hand, if players know they’ll get special dispensation when selected for Origin, won’t it cause them to be more reckless in pre-Origin games? Could it not give them licence for foul play? Doesn’t the spectre of Origin suspension for even relatively minor infractions in fact act as an even more effective deterrent?

On the other hand, is it fair that that greater deterrent is in place only for representative players? Lower-status players, knowing they risk only a regular season game’s suspension, already have that licence, according to that logic.

On the other hand, Queensland is going to win anyway. Isn’t suspending Wade Graham really doing him a favour by sparing him that pain?

On the other hand, if that’s the case, he should be punished for his offence by making him play, rather than rewarding him for breaking the rules by allowing him to escape the misery of playing for NSW.

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On the other hand, that’s a pretty good point. Yes, let’s make him play. That’ll send a powerful message.

On the other hand, making him play seems too harsh a punishment for a fairly soft high tackle. I say we let him off with a one-game suspension.

On the other hand, it’s a terrible message to send to kids: attack the head and you get to miss Origin.

On the other hand, the appeal of rugby league is its toughness. We can’t lose that by forcing anyone who miscalculates the contact zone a little to suffer the living hell of Origin.

Yep, it’s a thorny issue all right. There’s really no right or wrong answer. The only thing we can say for sure is that rugby league is better with brain injuries, so let’s not remove them from the game entirely.

But on the other hand…