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Opinion

Two elbows, two outcomes: The NRL’s priorities are stuffed

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21st March, 2021
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Compare the pair.

Twenty-five minutes into Saturday’s match-up between South Sydney and Manly, Sea Eagles half Daly Cherry-Evans puts a kick through and chases it past a few Bunnies defenders.

He runs across Rabbitohs fullback Latrell Mitchell, who turns to chase yet also conveniently gets into Cherry-Evans’ path.

Mitchell’s elbow brushes the hip of Cherry-Evans, who runs another ten metres then theatrically falls to the ground. I believe this move is called the ‘Billy Slater special’.

On-field referee Gerard Sutton converses with his touch judges and video referee Ashley Klein. Mitchell is called to face Sutton then sent away for ten minutes in the sin bin for an offence so apparently grievous it deserves a serious punishment.

Depending on where you sit, there’s an argument Mitchell’s actions didn’t even warrant a penalty, or that Cherry-Evans could even be sanctioned for simulation.

Latrell Mitchell of the Rabbitohs looks on

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

I guess the rules are the rules and if you’re wanting to apply them, that’s what they’re there for.

But let’s rewind 48 hours, to the second half of Thursday night’s belter between Parramatta and Melbourne.

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Eels second rower Ryan Matterson runs the ball and is met by three Storm defenders: Chris Lewis, George Jennings and Felise Kaufusi.

Kaufusi gets a hold of Matterson and drives his elbow into Matterson’s head as it hits the turf, knocking the Eel out almost instantly.

As Matterson lies on his back with his arms stuck in a fencing position (a classic concussion symptom), the single on-field referee Ashley Klein can’t see what’s happened because he’s moving to set the defensive ten metres.

Play is stopped and a penalty is awarded to Parramatta. Klein converses with his touch judges and video referee Henry Perenara.

Kaufusi is called to Klein and is surely about to be told to take a seat, the only question being whether it’s for ten minutes or the rest of the game.

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Remarkably, with video footage from every angle available, Klein puts Kaufusi on report and the Melbourne premiership player resumes his place in the Storm’s defence.

Matterson leaves the field, fails his HIA and doesn’t return. Right now it’s in the air if he’ll play this week – not a good situation for a player with both a history of bad head knocks and a pending contract period to negotiate.

On Saturday, Kaufusi is charged by the NRL match review committee with grade two dangerous contact, meaning he’ll be suspended for two games if he pleads guilty, or three if the Storm choose to contest it at the judiciary.

One of these things is most definitely not like the other.

Parramatta are down a star player and had one less on the bench, Melbourne suffer no immediate punishment and a State of Origin quality player remains on the field.

If this was a once-off you could understand, but players committing dangerous or foul play and staying on the field while their target goes off has been happening for years.

Ashley Klein and Felise Kaufusi

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

There’s rules in place to deal with acts like that from Kaufusi, and since 2018 (yes, 2018) the NRL’s Head of Football Graham Annesley has made a big song and dance about how could play would be sternly met with sin bins and send-offs.

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Any charges laid and suspensions imposed in the days after the action should be on top of a send-off or sin bin, not after the team with the injured player suffers during the game.

But it just doesn’t happen and not only are players being injured, their teams are being left in the lurch.

Maybe it’s time for the NRL to introduce a concussion substitute on the bench, to allow a fresh player to come in so if something like Kaufusi versus Matterson happens, whether deliberate or accidental, it’s still 17 versus 17.

And before you get into the comments saying Kaufusi didn’t mean it or it was accidental – that doesn’t matter. He made the action dangerous by putting his elbow in that spot on a defenceless player.

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The duty of a rugby league player to go bloody hard and put himself on the line is also weighed up against his duty not to knock his fellow player unconscious with his elbow if he doesn’t have to.

Geoff Parkes wrote in these pages last week about the NRL’s approach to concussion and I’ve also written about how player welfare doesn’t seem to be at the top of the administration’s list.

When you look at what’s been happening across the sporting world with the ramifications of head knocks and concussion, the NRL most definitely can’t afford to be seen to be blasé about the health of their players.

Like it or not, by not taking strong punitive action at the time of an incident, accidental or deliberate, we’re all left with this strong impression.

If you’re going apply the letter of the law to sin bin a player for their elbow literally brushing another player’s jersey, you must, must apply them when another player’s elbow knocks someone unconscious.

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