On Saturday night at the Bledisloe, we witnessed an event that is rarer than an aurora at the equator in the NRL: a player being sent off.
Not just that, but a player being sent off in the first half.
Not just that, but a player being sent off when the game was absolutely still in the balance. Mystifyingly, the All Blacks hadn’t skipped off to a four-try lead.
A combination of those three events hasn’t happened in the NRL for at least a decade and is unlikely to ever happen again.
That’s not to say the send-off is a frequent occurrence in rugby, but the important part is that it occurs and this zero-tolerance approach by World Rugby is embarrassing rugby league’s “she’ll be right” approach.
Quite simply, rugby is head and shoulders above the NRL in protecting everything above the shoulder.
Scott Barrett is, by all accounts, a nice man. He has a clean skin record as well. He’s not known for being a grub on the park, and rarely for an All Black, has a clearer understanding between the side of the ruck and the back of the ruck when he enters it. He’s a hard competitor as well.
But he made a boo-boo on Saturday. He braced his shoulder, made no attempt to use his arms at all, and sconed Michael Hooper on the head.
Hooper certainly felt the blow and reacted as anyone who just took 115 kilograms of shoulder would, grimacing in pain for a bit after. But that was it. He wasn’t hurt and wasn’t concussed.
Let’s pause there, and pretend that happened in the NRL.
The refs would have blown a penalty and probably would have given the player a bit of a talking to as well. And then play on. Possibly – but no certainty – that would go on report.
If it didn’t go on report, the MRC would certainly have picked it up. They would have laid a charge at the lower end of the careless scale and assumed that because the player wasn’t concussed, all is well, and offer the player a week off, likely to be reduced to a fine with an early guilty plea.
Most importantly, no one would have been sent off. It still would have been 13 vs 13. The flow of the game would be preserved. Got to keep the flow. Can’t have anyone sent off in the first half – that’s just gifting the team too great an advantage. We’d turn off our TVs if the game became one-sided.
And that’s what’s wrong with the NRL system. There is too much of a focus on the result instead of player welfare.
Let’s go back to Saturday night and digest what world rugby did.
Michael Hooper just copped a big shoulder to the head. Fortunately, he wasn’t concussed. But he absolutely could have been. A braced shoulder rammed right into his head. It was honestly amazing that Hooper wasn’t.
Unluckily for Barrett, it didn’t go unnoticed by the ref. He saw it straight away and called time out, initially upsetting the commentary team until something better happened. The referee showed no regard to the fact that Hooper was OK.
He followed – to the letter – the rulings of World Rugby on contact above the head with the shoulder. He used the shoulder, he made no attempt to use his arms, and while it was certainly an accident (Scott Barrett is not a thug) contact was still on the head, so he has to go. That Hooper played on is inconsequential.
And you know something? Rugby is a fairer game for it.
Michael Hooper was fine. Surely it’s unfair that Barrett got sent off? No. It’s perfectly fair.
What would have been unfair would have been him to stay on and someone – from either team – thinking that they could roll the dice on a braced shoulder at another stage in the game and actually concussing someone else and taking them out of the game.
It would have been negligent to leave him on and condone that activity – modus operandi for the NRL.
Following the rules is the fairest action of all.
The shoulder charge/brace has almost been eradicated from rugby because of the zero tolerance approach.
Anywhere, anytime you use the shoulder and hit the head, you’re gone. Sonny Bill Williams found that out two years ago as well. Rugby is still tough, rugby is still around. The issues – and there are many – that rugby faces are not because of a zero-tolerance approach to the head.
It has to be implemented in the NRL. The head has to be protected. The issues that the NRL will face in the future because of its obscenely lax approach to head protection will only multiply.
Matt Moylan’s unpunished concussion will be example No.1 used by any class action. Swinging arm contacting the head. Sam Burgess cops a penalty, and nothing more? Burgess was careless, but he should have been sent off. A careless coathanger struck the head first.
In rugby, he’s sent off. No ifs, no buts. In rugby, such tactics are a legitimate risk. In NRL, such tactics are tactically sensible.
The All Blacks have twice played marquee games in the past three years with a man being sent off in the first half. How many NRL teams can say the same? Imagine how much fairer the game would be if NRL refs were empowered to send people off?
When the legal reckoning comes – and it will come – I know which code isn’t going to have their insurance premiums raised unless meaningful action takes place now.
How many more concussions will the NRL have to manage before they finally get the clue that using the send off eradicates careless shots to the head?