Almost two years since former Queensland forward David Shillington was sent off for a last minute head-butt when playing for Canberra against Wests Tigers, events of the weekend have seen questions again raised as to whether the send off still exists in modern Rugby League. Craig Bellamy seemingly speaking for many when describing Canberra’s Sia Soliola’s late and high hit on Melbourne fullback Billy Slater, “If it’s not a sending off, well, I don’t know what is a sending off”.
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The incident which saw the judiciary suspend Soliola for five weeks, and reportedly deprive Slater of two weeks of memory, was adjudged by referee Matt Cecchin to be only worthy of being placed on report. A decision that referee’s boss, Tony Archer, was quick to distance himself from in a statement released on Saturday night. While acknowledging the fact that the incident would need to be addressed by the Match Review Panel, Archer was keen to let the world know his position, “based on a review of the tackle, the incident did meet the indicators of a send-off and the player should have been sent off the field.” Not content to leave it there though, Archer really threw his officials under the bus by concluding, “The match officials always have the option of a send-off and I expect them to use it in instances of serious foul play.”
While Archer was keen to ascribe blame to the match officials, much of the responsibility for the communication breakdown should land at his feet. Under his stewardship, NRL officiating has oscillated between inaction and over-reaction. With only one send off in the 750 odd games played under Archer’s reign, and the fact that some in the Rugby League community are prepared to argue the case that the Cecchin and co were correct in not dismissing Soliola, it is clear that the ref’s boss might be alone in the belief that he offers anything other than lip service to late and dangerous play.
One such defender, despite a panel in disagreement, was Nathan Hindmarsh on Monday Night with Matthew Johns. The former Origin and Test Match Second Rower illustrating how much the definition of a late hit has become so horribly and farcially understood. “I don’t think it was late,” Hindmarsh told a shocked Matty Johns, arguing instead that Soliola was simply unlucky that Slater had slipped. “It is not a send-off offence,” the Parra champ contended, “If Billy hadn’t have slipped, I would have said yes. Send him off.”
Despite my standing as an unabashed Hindmarsh fan, this position he has taken is simply incorrect, yet understandable given the NRL’s consistent inability to take action on late shots. While acknowledging that these players are making split second decisions, far too much latitude is given when judging these types of incidents. In this instance, the ball had left Slater’s hands a relative age before Soliola made contact with him. While it would be wrong to argue that the Raiders’ back-rower intended to seriously harm Slater, or even that his decision to continue with the tackle despite the fullback passing the ball one that would not be made by other NRL players.
As inherently wrong as the decision to allow Soliola to remain on the ground was, Bellamy was keen to discuss a subsequent decision that highlights the lunacy of NRL officiating under Tony Archer.
He’s (Soliola) going to come under scrutiny without a doubt, but then we lose a player for holding onto someone for ten minutes. I’m not quite sure that is right and fair but the decision was made and we play on.
That’s’ right, while reticent to punish those who commit major in-game offences, referees are more than happy to punish professional fouls. This meant that we had the farcical situation on Saturday night were Soliola had knocked Billy Slater into next week yet stayed on the ground, while Cameron Munster cooled his heels in the dressing sheds for preventing a Canberra player get up and play the ball. Only the NRL could believe this lunacy makes sense.
Having reached this situation through their institutional inaction, history suggests that we will be treated to an over-reaction from officialdom in the coming weeks. It would be wise for any player confronted with a similar situation that confronted Soliola, to strongly reconsider following through with the tackle, because if they don’t it is fair to say that officials won’t respond the way they did in Canberra on Saturday night.
What do you think? You can hear Bozza’s thoughts on this and the rest of the sporting week on The Pinch Hitters with Boz and Pav, download via I-Tunes, Soundcloud or the link below.