The five-game suspension Sia Soliola received for his high tackle on Billy Slater was fair enough. Now let’s see if match officials are prepared to crack down on the reason why such a hit has become more likely to happen.
No doubt like many of you out there, I’ve looked at countless replays of Canberra forward Soliola’s tackle on Melbourne fullback Slater.
The way I saw it, Soliola had eyes only for Slater after the Storm player had passed the ball and meant to hit him late and hard, but didn’t mean to hit him high.
I reckon he meant to get him about midway between Slater’s elbow and shoulder and was aiming to really shake him up good.
Maybe he thought he would get away with looking committed to the tackle as long as it wasn’t high, but any chance of that happening disappeared when Slater slipped in that fraction of a second after Soliola began swinging his arm and before it connected with Slater’s head.
Once Soliola had nearly knocked Slater’s block off he had to be judged on hitting him high, regardless of whether he meant to or not.
It didn’t matter that Slater had slipped, because Soliola had chosen to hit him late. The full onus of responsibility was immediately on the Canberra player.
But, even then, it wasn’t a classic ‘you’re gone’ moment in which the referee could feel comfortable in sending Soliola off immediately.
The incident happened very quickly and after the ball had been moved on, so it was necessary for all of the match officials to take a deep breath, understand and consider what had happened, let Slater get initial treatment and then make a correct decision on what to do with the player responsible.
And given the time that elapsed between the incident occurring and the decision being made, they got almost all of that right.
Except for that most important part – the decision.
Under those circumstances, it defied belief that Soliola wasn’t sent off, but given the modern trends in the game we shouldn’t be surprised at that.
Send-offs appear to have gone the way of contested scrums, but that’s just one aspect of it.
Players walk off the mark all day, they don’t play the ball properly, way too many forward passes from dummy half are let go…
Unlike with the scrums, these are rules that are still supposed to be regularly enforced, but referees don’t enforce them remotely as strictly as they as they should so, presumably because of a desire to – above all else – let the game ‘flow’.
The list goes on and also includes an increase in the number of players being whacked late after passing the ball.
Usually, they are the main playmakers, the five-eighths or halfbacks, or other star players like, in this case, Slater.
The reason that is happening more often is the same reason there is too much walking off the mark and incorrect playing of the ball and too many forward passes – it isn’t adequately policed.
It is usually a whack to the side, or in the back, and doesn’t end up like the Soliola hit on Slater, but they are still cheap shots on unsuspecting players who have relaxed in that moment after passing the ball.
Occasionally you’ll see a penalty awarded for such an incident, but referees should start using the sin bin to rid the game of this poor habit.
I’m not talking about relatively innocuous bumps, but rugged contact that knocks the player over and has the potential to cause injury.
Players would think twice about making a late hit if it risked leaving their team a man down for ten minutes. The trend would disappear pretty quickly.
The sight of a hugely popular player like Slater, a superstar, lying flat on his back after being knocked out by an illegal hit is an awful look for the game.
Hopefully, the five-game ban of Soliola will be followed up by stricter policing from the match officials.