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The blatant Cleary shoulder charge and what it confirms about the NRL

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18th August, 2021
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“All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others” – George Orwell.

Just why did Nathan Cleary not get sin binned, let alone penalised, for his blatant shoulder charge on Jack Bird?

Well, it is a horrible reality in rugby league, as in life in general, that some teams are more equal than others.

While the famous George Orwell Russian Revolution/Soviet Union allegory Animal Farm was primarily aimed at political machinations, stating that those in power will always put themselves first, it also rings true in the game that we love.

In the NRL it isn’t just about the powerful asserting their dominance in the player market, free-to-air coverage and sponsorship, it is also about the way things are perceived and judged.

Sometimes teams get treated differently simply because of preconceptions of how we expect things to turn out.

Not only do weaker teams have to deal with their own limitations when playing the frontrunners, they also have to battle the preconceptions of the officials, the commentators and opposition fans as well.

It is entirely possible that because they know the stronger team is superior and expect the weaker team will lose, officials can view the incidents in favour of the dominant side without even realising it.

It is called ‘confirmation bias’ and it is a real thing.

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We all have a tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of our own existing beliefs and theories and referees are no different to the rest of us.

If an incident occurs that involves a known transgressor of the rules – say, the Roosters’ Victor Radley – the referee is more like to suspect foul play on his behalf, make sure the incident is checked and – when they see even vague evidence to support their suspicion – the player is penalised, sin binned, charged and suspended.

Victor Radley of the Roosters is sent to the sin bin.

Victor Radley of the Roosters is sent to the sin bin (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

He did it, right? Of course he did it. He always does it.

Conversely, there are players we just assume do nothing wrong.

In the 54th minute of the Panthers-Dragons match last Friday night, Cleary shoulder-charged Jack Bird and caused the Dragons fullback to lose the ball.

And then the Panthers scored.

As a neutral spectator in regard to this game, my reaction to this incident was: “WTF?!”

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“The Dragons were going to lose anyway – right? – so why does it even matter?” I hear you say.

Well, because the game has rules and we expect that they’ll be applied evenly. We want it to be fair. As Peter V’landys so correctly enunciated, we don’t want to feel ripped off.

The replays clearly showed Cleary shoulder charging Bird with enough force to make the ball to fly free. As with every try this year, the try isn’t meant to be confirmed until it is cleared by the video referee.

However, while the Fox League commentary team confirmed what all the viewers playing along at home saw – Cleary impacting Bird with his shoulder and no arms – Alan Shortall in the Bunker gave the all clear for the try to be awarded.

Why? Very possibly confirmation bias.

While Shortall – whom I assure you is not corrupt in any way – may have seen the shoulder charge, it’s possible that subconscious bias saw it get the green light. Superstar Nathan Cleary doesn’t shoulder charge, right?

Eminent social media commentators – presumably also with the aid of confirmation bias – then claimed it not to be a shoulder charge at all and found ways to justify their stances.

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What are the chances that had the situation had been reversed – if Bird had collected Cleary with a shoulder – we would have seen the try called back, a penalty to the Panthers and maybe even Bird sin binned?

The Dragons aren’t a very good team are they? And aren’t they also all a bit loose? Right? That Bird’s a bit suss, too…

Andrew Voss and Michael Ennis – both of whom I quite like – rubbed salt into the Dragons fans’ wounds by laughing at the reality of Cleary laying a shoulder charge.

It was funny seeing a smaller guy do it and it somehow didn’t really count because he is a halfback and Bird wasn’t crippled by it.

The problem is that shoulder charges are illegal and can’t be enacted, regardless of the perpetrator’s size, regardless of the victim not being laid out by it.

All that should vary is the level of on-field punishment and then the grading of the incident by the Match Review Committee.

If it is any other way it becomes the same as Sideshow Bob’s argument against his incarceration, “Attempted murder. Now honestly what is that? Can you win a Nobel Prize for attempted chemistry?”

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If the precedents from this unprecedented season were followed, the try should have been overruled, St George Illawarra awarded a penalty and Cleary placed on report. At some points of this season, he would have been sin binned too.

Instead, Cleary kicked a conversion to take the score to 28-6.

Those arguing against Cleary having performed a shoulder charge – including and especially Graham Annesley – are at best guilty of confirmation bias, and at worst of not knowing the rules.

Annesley even declared a new interpretation of a shoulder charge while he was at it:

“We have to remember what a shoulder charge is – and that’s someone charging at an opposition player with their shoulder.”

Really, Graham?

Let’s examine that statement, shall we?

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‘Rugby League Laws of the Game International Level with notes on the laws and NRL Telstra Premiership Interpretations (Approved by the Australian Rugby League Commission) Official July 2020 Edition’ define a shoulder charge as follows:

“Section 2 – Glossary: SHOULDER CHARGE is where a defender, without attempting to tackle, grab or hold the ball-carrier (or any opposing player) using the arms or hands, makes direct physical contact with the shoulder or the upper arm. (Refer Section 15)

“Section 15 – Player’s Misconduct: 1. A player is guilty of misconduct if he: (k) uses a shoulder charge on an opponent.”

Where Graham is getting “charging at an opposition player with their shoulder” from is anyone’s guess.

So, not only are the referees and bunker officials being inconsistent in applying the rules in regard to shoulder charges, we’ve also got the NRL head of football citing definitions not supported by the rules published by his own organisation.

For better or for worse, what we have been increasingly seeing is that adjudication of incidents via video replays take a literal and non-flexible approach.

For example, in Round 8, we saw the Raiders’ Jack Wighton denied a try because the video replay showed that the Rabbitohs’ Benji Marshall was technically blocked from attempting a tackle.

Everyone knew that Marshall had no chance of bringing Wighton down without a gun and everyone saw Marshall deliberately run into the obstructing Raider to highlight his case. However, technically, Marshall was obstructed and the try was rightly – although not morally – disallowed.

Given that, it is unsurprising that the Red V staff, players and fans, witnessing yet another season go down the gurgler, were incensed that such a blatant offence as Cleary’s was let go.

The Burton ‘try’ totally ended the match as a contest and extinguished the Dragons last flicker of hope for making the finals.

Matt Burton of the Panthers.

Matt Burton (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Unlike the Fox commentators, Anthony Griffin wasn’t amused after the game.

“I thought the score line was a bit tough on us,” said the coach.

“With the way the game went they just got their points a little easy at times. There were a couple of dodgy calls there, particularly Cleary’s shoulder charge on Jack Bird.

“How that gets awarded a try I don’t know. It was a clear-cut shoulder charge. That’s the one they brought the rule in for where you don’t use your arms.”

However, the reality is, Griffin – along with all of us bewildered by Cleary’s shoulder charge going unpunished – is screaming into the void. As I’ve previously stated, the NRL is a law unto itself.

As we now enter the end of the 2021 home-and-away season, a number of lesser clubs are in a desperate tussle to make the finals. Each will reflect back to matches earlier in the season where they felt they were robbed and if they just had those two points now everything would be fine.

The reality is that they just weren’t on the pace if those incidents made the difference between making the eight or not. But that doesn’t make it feel any better.

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Losing is a habit that can only be broken by winning. Winning brings self-belief and resilience. Players need to see reward for effort, for sticking to the game plan, executing their plays and applying pressure.

If that reward doesn’t come even in part because the rules weren’t applied fairly, it is dispiriting.

However, blaming the officials will get you very short shrift, as best evidenced by Annesley’s angry rebuttal of questions about refereeing mistakes: “Teams have lost games because they haven’t been good enough to win them. That’s why they’ve lost games.”

Of course, the officials don’t hold any part of the blame, it is just because your team sucks.

That’s the kind of rubbish we’ve come to expect from Annesley and the NRL.

For all the supporters of also-ran clubs, the appearance of fairness in officiating is vitally important and witnessing Nathan Cleary get away scot free with a shoulder charge leaves a bad taste in their mouths.

Because right now it seems to us that some animals are just more equal.

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