What a classic NRL experience: 100 per cent outrage, split 50-50.
On one side, those who think Billy Slater should be finished and on the other, those who are glad he will be suiting up on Sunday.
Slater has played his whole career on the edge, and at the end he very nearly fell over it.
I was at the Storm’s preliminary final last Friday and in the immediate aftermath of his try-saving shoulder charge on Cronulla’s Sosaia Feki, there were two conversations rumbling round the crowd.
When it became apparent Slater had been penalised, Sharks supporters raged about the ‘no call’ of a penalty try or a sin bin (and you have to admit they had a fair case), while Melbourne fans spoke in hushed tones about whether their fullback would get rubbed out.
Last night you could hear the sigh of relief all the way from Maribynong to Moore Park.
To state the bleeding obvious, it’s a great result for Slater and the Storm and it definitely swings Melbourne’s chances of winning even further into the favourites column.
But it’s another blow to the NRL judiciary.
A quick note: I loved the play. Cronulla ran a great backline move and were 100 per cent going to score until Slater sprinted 30 metres to crunch Feki and end it.
But it was a shoulder charge, clear as day. Talking north to south, east to west, it’s irrelevant. No ifs, no buts, no what ifs, no whatabouts. In 2018 the rule is clear:
“Where a defender does not use, or attempt to use, his arms (including his hands) to tackle or otherwise take hold of the opposing player and the contact is forceful. It will be considered misconduct, if any player affects a tackle in the manner as defined.”
Slater’s argument that he first hit Feki with his pectoral muscle is laughable. Successful, mind you, but laughable. He had no intent to tackle Feki. He just wanted to run into him and stop a try and he didn’t care how it happened.
And who could blame him? Any other player would have done exactly the same thing in a preliminary final.
But ‘pec first’ was a masterful argument that gave the perfect out for a panel who didn’t want to be the one to shoot Bambi, as it were.
People were complaining about panel members Sean Garlick, Bob Lindner and Mal Cochrane taking their time to deliberate, but there was a lot going on in the hearing about angles, contact points, intent, results, Billy’s study habits, and Feki’s chosen running direction.
I’ve got no doubt they understood the magnitude of the decision they were responsible for.
Rugby league often lets emotion cloud its decision making. Did the trio not want to be responsible for suspending a player for a grand final and at the same time ending one of the greatest careers the game has ever seen?
Did emotion creep into it? I’d hope not and for the record, I don’t think it did.
On a wider note, is it time to revisit the NRL judiciary setup? Should we be satisfied that a part-time panel of ex-players (the most recent retiree being 20 years ago) are expected to listen to two lawyers muddying waters for an hour before they have to make a decision?
Foul play and misconduct rules are clear-cut. You either apply them or you don’t. Nuance and precedent has no place here. Do ex-players need to be there? Maybe the people making the final decision need to be more removed.
There’s merit in arguing about the grading and penalties involved in a shoulder charge. Maybe an automatic two-week penalty is harsh (god knows they need to work out how to properly punish a crusher tackle).
They won’t admit it, but it’s a bad outcome for the Roosters, Melbourne’s grand final opponent.
Not only do they have to prepare for Slater, coach Trent Robinson needs to arrange a halves combination sans his number seven, Cooper Cronk.
The Bondi club are probably rightly wondering where the protection was for Cronk, maybe even asking why no one was charged after he was taken out repeatedly?
You could see the Souths players drilling the star halfback again and again, and I started to get the feeling that they didn’t want to, but they had to.
Targeting the opposition’s best playmaker has been going on for years. Just ask Johnathan Thurston. Halfbacks and five-eighths take shots after passing the ball at least half a dozen times a game.
To his credit, Cronk didn’t hide – he turned up, set after set, absorbed what came and carried on with one arm pointlessly hanging at his side.
But it was an example of courage that’s likely cost him a place in the most important game of the year.
Billy Slater saw his NRL career flash before his eyes last night. But right or wrong, the decision is made and we’ll all rage or rejoice in it for a moment before moving on to Sunday’s
Thank god that’s over. Let’s put it behind us. Like Slater himself said after being cleared – preparation for the grand final starts now!