I watch a lot of both rugby codes, but one thing that does my head in within rugby league is when an incident occurs around foul play.
The discussion will quickly centre around the player who committed the foul, their personality, their intent and whether the foul is correctly classified.
These elements are never taken into consideration when foul play occurs in union, because they are irrelevant.
Henry Perenara’s decision to penalise and send Kalyn Ponga to the sin bin in Newcastle’s clash with the Tigers has been unfairly derided because of the usual talk about personality – ‘it’s not his go’ or ‘that wasn’t his intent’.
The shoulder charge rule and Michael Chee Kam’s injuries were incidental.
Unlike union, league has the unique ability to take the simple and make it complex and the shoulder charge rule is no different.
The rule has been a source of confusion to the point that Graham Annesley came out to clear up the issue.
Annesley takes a black-and-white rule and gives it more shades of grey. Suddenly, the rule was only aimed at the front-on shoulder charges, not the glancing shoulder charges that occur in preventing tries – apparently they’re another matter for further consideration.
In Annesley’s explanation, he fails to categorically state if the glancing shoulder charge warrants a penalty or not, even though both occur. He does at least declare those incidents do not warrant further off-field action.
This is where Ponga’s contact with Chee Kam is problematic for Annesley and the safety of players in rugby league. Applying this rule with discretion allows players to play with a degree of recklessness without fear of punishment, thus putting player safety at risk.
Evidently, after Ponga’s clearance from further action, the NRL is doubling down.
In union, all shoulder charges are outlawed. This includes simply penalising those glancing, try-preventing shoulder charges, to the extreme type as best demonstrated by Sonny Bill Williams in the second Test against the Lions in 2017, when he was sent off.
The harsher application of the law in union – in contrast to league and expectations of defensive players – is culturally entrenched and excuses aren’t tolerated for unintentional or careless foul play.
Union’s reaction to the SBW send-off in 2017 is proof. Arguments against the send-off and subsequent one-game ban were few if any. That cultural difference in union compared to league makes union the safer of the two codes in comparable areas of the game.
League’s cultural difference is starkly revealed by Ponga in statements about last night’s incident, such as: “I was a bit surprised. I don’t know what the refs wanted me to do there, maybe let them score, I’m not too sure.”
Ponga’s defence demonstrates an inconvenient truth within league that laws protecting the wellbeing of the player are thrown out under certain circumstances. Deliberately or not, Annesley suggested this in his earlier assessment.
That’s a major problem.
Ponga’s decision not to dive for the ball but play the man put Chee Kam’s wellbeing in jeopardy. The heavy contact with the head was a direct result of that decision, thus careless and avoidable.
What happened to Chee Kam could easily happen in situations as presented by Annesley in the video.
I do not think for a minute Ponga intended to knock out Chee Kam. However, intent should not be considered when adjudicating foul play or further sanction. Players have the ultimate responsibility to apply legal defensive technique, including in preventing tries.
Injuries will happen, that is the nature of the beast. Players of both codes can still go out there and bash each other to a pulp legally. Making the game safer doesn’t make it less tough.
Remove the inconsistencies that make foul play like shoulder charges or illegal tackles such as spear tackles – including lifting tackles gone wrong – excusable under the guise of poor technique, the lack of intent or circumstance.
Phrases such as ‘these things happen in footy’ are lazy when in fact a majority of incidents are quite avoidable, as was the case with Ponga.
Rugby league needs to show more backbone in applying the laws of the game, like rugby union.