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Opinion

Lucky Luai yet another example of NRL’s wobbly wheels of justice veering off track in search for consistency

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7th August, 2023
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There is never going to be the iron-clad consistency that some media members and fans crave from the NRL judicial process because it’s an inexact science.

No matter how many key indicators about whether an incident was  forceful, careless, reckless or dangerous, opinions will vary. 

NRL head of football Graham Annesley pretty much said as much for the umpteenth time at his weekly media briefing on Monday as he tried to defuse the drama after an eventful round of send-offs, sin-binnings and penalties. 

But you can’t have such a wide discrepancy in punishments as we’ve seen over the past few days and not expect to cop criticism.

Case in point – Jarome Luai jumped in the air to hit Nelson Asofa-Solomona in the head with his shoulder during Penrith’s win over Melbourne on Friday night and got off virtually scot free. 

Roosters forward Nathan Brown left the ground a night earlier at the SCG and made high contact with Ben Trbojevic and was sent off on the spot even though his Manly opponent wasn’t even knocked to the ground by the impact.

Granted, the Luai incident was not a thunderous hit by any stretch of the imagination but as the fourth Panthers defender into a tackle on the Storm behemoth, his actions caused a knock-on which nearly led to a Penrith try on the next set. 

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After that set came to nothing, the bunker intervened to tell referee Adam Gee that Luai had been a naughty boy and he needed to have a rap on the knuckles in the form of being placed on report.

It’s now on your permanent record, young man. Hopefully it doesn’t affect his hopes of graduating at the end of the semester.  

Luai reacted by looking at the touch judge with trademark incredulity and getting on with the business of closing out the victory with his team up 20-6 with around half an hour left. 

Officials miss incidents in the run of play, it happens. Melbourne received no benefit from Luai’s indiscretion and it certainly wasn’t a decisive factor in a match won comfortably by the premiers.

But for the match review committee to then compound the error by giving Luai a grade-one careless high tackle charge is where the NRL’s wheels of justice have again thrown a wobbly.

The fact that Luai was one of the smallest players on the field and Asofa-Solomona was the biggest is irrelevant. 

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He should have been slapped with a shoulder charge offence and been missing at least a game or two. 

But he slips clear of a suspension despite falling into the “third and subsequent offence” category for repeat offenders, taking the $3000 fine instead of risking the possibility of a two-match ban.

PENRITH, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 04: Jarome Luai of the Panthers runs the ball during the round 23 NRL match between Penrith Panthers and Melbourne Storm at BlueBet Stadium on August 04, 2023 in Penrith, Australia. (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

Jarome Luai. (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

Ryan Matterson is the only player who has taken the ban instead of paying up a fine, when his judgment was let’s say “clouded” when making the decision during the drowning of sorrows after Parramatta’s Grand Final loss last year. 

That proves that the players and clubs don’t see the fines as a major deterrent to on-field foul play. 

It’s irritating but not a meaningful form of punishment. 

The option of the $3000 fine or two-match ban should only be offered once. 

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After that, if a player transgresses a fourth time or more, hefty bans should be their only option if found guilty.

Dragons forward Jack de Belin has been charged six times this year, paying fines totalling $11,800 before finally earning a ban prior to last round when he challenged a dangerous contact charge and had a three-week suspension extended to four. 

Asofa-Solomona also avoided suspension five times last year when he was only fined despite a string of unsavoury incidents. 

For players like these two who are on contracts reportedly in the $700,000 ballpark annually, the fines add up to around 2% of their annual wage.

If a player on a minimum deal had those kind of financial sanctions placed upon them, then they would feel the pain in their hip pocket but for the game’s well-paid elite, it’s not enough of a hindrance. 

The NRL should look at fines being a percentage of a player’s salary – the dollar figure doesn’t necessarily need to be published (although that has happened in the past with punishments for off-field incidents) but it would equate to a fairer system. 

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Brown and Titans forward Moeaki Fotuaika will only miss this weekend’s round despite being sent off last weekend, which is fair enough because that’s what their high shots warranted at the most. 

The send-offs were harsh when compared with worse incidents that only received sin bins but then yielded longer suspensions in previous rounds.

Brown was accused by referee Ashley Klein of running out of the line with intent – shouldn’t all defenders do that?

NRL fans can breathe a sigh of relief if they’re concerned that there is another crackdown on high contact on the horizon like the one that turned Magic Round into a farce a couple of years ago. 

Annesley said “nothing could be further from the truth” about there being any type of crackdown last week. 

“These are judgment calls that referees and the bunker are called upon to make every single week in every single game and they have to adjudicate on the circumstances and the seriousness in deciding which of those levels of actions are required in each case,” he said.

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“There are some common themes that are causing concern at the moment, particularly around shoulder contact with the head of the opponent. This is nothing new but we are seeing it happen more often.”

It’s a commonsense approach and whether coaches and players agree with it or not is not the point, they need to adapt.

Annesley reiterated that defenders who continue to aim their “target zone up around the shoulders” are running a huge risk.

And as we’ve seen from the last round, that risk varies widely from being unfortunate like Brown and getting marched for a tackle which probably should have just warranted a penalty or lucking out like Luai.

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