The hysteria that has followed Sia Soliola’s non-sending off for his late hit on Billy Slater in the 49th minute of Saturday night’s game seems to be effectively equating Soliola with Hannibal Lecter.
He has been painted as a serial thug who deliberately took out Slater and then managed to stop the officials sending him off for it.
Any examination of Soliola’s record would show these allegations to be off the mark.
However, that hasn’t stopped Andrew Johns labelling the hit “As cheap as they come.”
On Twitter, Richard Hinds branded it “a horrible cheap shot,” while serial tweeter/writer/comedian Ben Pobjie – among a stream of tweets that promoted the Raiders as recidivist cheats – characterised it as “…a deliberate attack on the head.”
However, before you all grab your torches and pitchforks to join the mob these guys are whipping into a frenzy for a good old fashioned trial by outraged public opinion, can I suggest – with cool heads – we look at what happened.
While Soliola will rightly face the rap for the hit on Slater, the blame for no send off being enacted lies entirely with Tony Archer.
Before we examine that, let me stress that I believe Sia Soliola should have been sent off for the late hit on Slater. I said as much live during ABC Grandstand’s coverage of the game.
However, to suggest Soliola intentionally targeted Slater’s head is rubbish and could only be said by hysterics and by those who know nothing of the man.
Slater unexpectedly slipped and, instead of collecting the player in the torso as Soliola’s big hit tackles always do, Sia collected Billy in the head with a forearm. It knocked Slater out. That, combined with it being late, meant it was a send-off offence for mine.
That I believe that it was accidental is neither here nor there. Whether careless or reckless, the damage done was clear.
However, Soliola being characterised in the way the likes of Hinds and Pobjie have is poor. With all due respect to those two, they are very, very wrong about Sia.
I do not believe him to be a cheap shot artist or thug. He is one of the nicest guys I’ve met in rugby league. A good family man, he is one of the moral mainstays of the Raiders club.
It was one of the chief reasons that he was brought to Canberra by Ricky Stuart. Off the field, he is a gentle, softly spoken and kind man. I’d trust Sia with my kids.
Discussing the incident post-match, Yvonne Sampson and her panel had the temerity to suggest that Soliola was something other than a Les Boydesque head hunter. Mr Pobjie did not like that one bit
Fox’s boofhead panel making excuses for Soliola, who’s been described as “the world’s nicest guy” #NRLRaidersStorm
— Ben Pobjie (@benpobjie) July 22, 2017
Ben, please come actually meet the bloke before you start assassinating his character and deriding those who defend it. Perhaps if a human of the calibre of Sampson is defending Soliola there is something in it.
Yes, the incident was bad. That doesn’t mean you should assume it defines the man.
No, we don’t. So why are you trying to define Sia by this incident?
Further, the Storm have a fair bit of history when it comes to unsavoury tactics. I’m not just talking salary cap rorts or grapple tackling here.
For example, in 2016 I witnessed Cam Smith and Cooper Cronk target Jarrod Croker late and often well off the ball (Round 23 game, as well as Cam Smith’s insidious attack on Croker’s knee in the 2016 preliminary final).
Soliola targeted Slater for a big hit but mistimed it and got him late and in the head. Sia will miss a few weeks at least. After targeting Croker’s injured knee well off the ball, Smith played the very next week. The grand final no less.
Regardless, Sia really should have been sent off.
It was wrong that he wasn’t. And that is the fault of nobody but the officials.
On Saturday night at 9:21 Tony Archer – “General Manager Officiating” – released the following statement:
“Re tackle by Sia Soliola on Billy Slater
“It’s important to note that Sia Soliola is on report and the matter will be addressed by the match review committee.
“But based on a review of the tackle, the incident did meet the indicators of a send off and the player should have been sent from the field.
“The match officials always have the option of a send off and I expect them to use it in instances of serious foul play.”
Firstly, it needs to be pointed out that once more Tony Archer has come out in public and not just failed to back his staff but stuck the boot into them as well. He’s got form when it comes to blamestorming and making his charges feel unsupported. As I’ve said previously, I’d hate a person who operated like that to be my boss.
To my mind, the above missive effectively says, “It wasn’t me who didn’t send him off! It was Matt, Chris, Bernie and Bryan! And they got it wrong. Blame them. I woulda sent him off for sure, honest I woulda! But don’t worry, Soliola’s really going to get it at the judiciary! I’ve labelled it serious foul play!”
What a truly grouse bloke you are Tony…
Secondly: Really Tony? You expect your officials to use the send off option in instances of serious foul play?
All evidence is to the contrary!
Archer has been in charge of the referees and touch judges for four seasons now – 747 NRL games and counting. In that time just one solitary player – David Shillington – has been sent off (for head butting Aaron Woods on August 10, 2015). Everything else – no matter how blatantly awful it has subsequently been adjudicated to be at the judiciary – has been put on report.
So either Archer believes the judiciary has got it really wrong every time they’ve handed down a heavy penalty commensurate with a send off worthy offence, or his officials don’t respect his authority and fail to follow his instructions, or the use of the send off option has actually been discouraged.
You be the judge.
Former NRL first grade touch judge Daniel Eastwood believes that the on-field officials no longer feel able to send players off. “On-field refs have zero say in send offs. It’s all down to video these days. God help a ref who goes against the advice of the Bunker.”
That the bunker officials, even with the massive amount of time they had to review an incident, only put Soliola on report shows that the system is broken.
However, there was another issue that may well have made it even more unlikely for a Raiders player to get sent off on Saturday night. Ex-Storm 2012 Premiership player Bryan Norrie was one of the video refs. Along with referee Bernard Sutton, Norrie was the ex-player bunker official for the game.
What on earth was Archer thinking putting Norrie in that position? For starters, it was inviting allegations of bias as Norrie had been a teammate of eight of the Storm’s side for Saturday night’s match as recently as the 2014 season. Further, he was a member of the Storm’s 2012 Premiership side. Five of his teammates from that game took the field on Saturday night, including Billy Slater.
Norrie was never in any danger of being biased towards the Storm. A man of integrity such as him would have been at pains to do his job in as transparently impartial manner as possible. Until the Dale Finucane try, in the 69th minute, every decision that the Bunker could have ruled in the Raiders favour was. That included overturning the Suliasi Vunivalu four-pointer that Matt Cecchin had sent up as a try.
And it included the review of the Soliola hit on Slater.
If you are a man of high integrity such as Norrie, in an environment where there has been just one send off in four seasons, and you’re an ex-teammate of the poor guy who has just been smashed, are you going to strongly argue the case for dismissal? I’d bet a very large amount of money against it.
So I say again: what on earth was Archer thinking putting Norrie in that position? And, further, how dare he lay any blame at Norrie’s feet for not enacting a send-off.
I hope Slater recovers quickly from Saturday night’s incident, as I’m sure Sia Soliola does too. While Soliola should have been sent off and will no doubt face further sanction, he is a very good man and those trying hysterically to define him by this incident are way off the mark.
In regard to the shortcomings of the officiating, at what point does Todd Greenberg actually start to question the abilities and judgement of Archer? I’d strongly argue that he should be doing it now.
That the send-off has become extinct is of great concern and should be the subject of a full independent review, as should Archer’s suitability for his role.