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Opinion

NRL consistently inconsistent when it comes to punishments for head-high contact

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Expert
21st March, 2024
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Over the past couple of years, the NRL has introduced so many new rules that I am genuinely struggling to keep track.
But there’s no point in introducing new rules if they are not enforced or worse, if the only consistency we can count on is inconsistency.

One area where we are increasingly seeing inconsistency is in the policing of high/late shots.

Last Friday night, in the match between the Parramatta Eels and Penrith Panthers, Bailey Simonsson was taken off the field for an HIA in the first two minutes of the game, after a high shot from Jarome Luai.

Simonsson failed his HIA and did not return. This had an impact on the game. Coaches rarely carry an extra outside back on their benches and of course, don’t plan to lose an outside back so early.

Parramatta are already stretched for outside backs and its one of their weak points for their 2024 campaign. Rather than disrupt the halves pairing or another combination on the field Brad Arthur made the decision to shift Kelma Tuilagi to centre and Morgan Harper to the wing. Penrith are a smart football team so just kept attacking that edge with great success throughout the game.

My question is, why did Luai remain on the field?

It doesn’t seem fair that a team can lose a player so early (or at any point at all) and that the only real punishment for Luai was a penalty against him. It rubbed salt into the wound when Luai was put on report a second time in the game for tripping Mitchell Moses. I understand this is no longer a ‘straight to the sin bin’ offence, but my question is why?

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It’s a grubby and dangerous act, not to mention completely unnecessary.

Somehow Laui has escaped suspension, despite being put on report twice. But the result for Parramatta is more dire. Parramatta will be without Simonsson this week due to the NRL concussion protocols, which need to be in place.

It wasn’t the only incident though.

On Thursday night Taylan May rushed up and Reece Walsh’s match was over ater less than five minutes even though the contact looked accidental, it was still a case of a defender making high contact, via a head clash. The defender was fortunate enough to stay on the field but the tackled player played no further part.

There was also the late shot on Viliame Kikau last week. Briton Nikora stayed on the field but has now copped a two-week suspension.

Nikora is, to many people’s surprise not a big player. I wonder whether the outcome would have been the same if the roles had been reversed and a bigger man in Kikau put a late shot on Nikora?

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When we are talking about concussion and high shots, it’s not just about applying the rules consistently for the sake of consistency.

There is probably no bigger issue facing contact sports at the moment than concussion.

In the Sydney Morning Herald on Wednesday, there was another article about concussion and specifically seven conditions found in former footy players’ brains. It’s sobering reading and scary to think about some of the other neurological issues that were found in all six brains of former rugby league and rugby union players that were studied (including Alzheimer’s, Lewy body disease and sclerosis).

While players may have a laissez-faire approach to concussion while they are playing, thinking that they are invincible, it’s becoming clearer that protocols need to be put in place so that our game is as safe as possible for current players and for the generation of players to come.

It’s also important from a risk management perspective for sports to manage their liability when it comes to neglecting to understand the impact of ongoing collisions.

That’s where the NRL has a role as a governing body, to set standards and put practices in place. But this is only as effective as it can be with enforcement.

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The beginning of the year is an opportunity for the NRL, the referees and the judiciary to work together to set the standard of expectation for the coming year.

I am underwhelmed with what I have seen so far when it comes to concussion.

I remember a couple of years back during Magic Round, when the NRL announced its ‘crackdown’ on high shots. And a crackdown it was with player after player being sent to the bin for high contact. It may have felt excessive, but in the weeks that followed the number of high shots reduced.

The problem was that the NRL didn’t stick to its guns, and we are now back in a world where its unclear to me when a player should and should not be sent off for a high shot and how we are deterring players from that sort of conduct in the future.

If it’s unclear to me, no doubt its unclear to the players and to the coaches. It’s an area where we can’t afford for that lack of clarity to become the norm.

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