Why the 2018 NRL Grand Final was a Farce

First and foremost I would like to congratulate the Sydney Roosters. They faced a season of adversity which they were able to overcome and thoroughly dominate the game to come away with the win.

Nothing said in this piece is trying to take that away from them or imply that they didn’t deserve to win. Rather, from a neutral perspective, a Grand Final should be a chance to watch two of the best teams in the league battle it out for the glory they have worked for all season in a high-quality game. Thus, it becomes a shame when the league body intervenes and prevents a high-quality match. To gain the proper context it is important to cover a few issues that have crept up in recent years.

As the NRL moved towards a more player safety based league they implemented a range of changes to the judiciary system to dissuade players from making careless or dangerous contact. However, it is all reactive. When Konrad Hurrell first came into the league, it was clear to see his running style could lead to serious injury. But due to his effectiveness and post-contact metres it was not until he copped a suspension for 5 weeks did the NRL or the New Zealand Warriors step in and force him to change it. A similar problem reared its head this year with Dylan Napa’s tackling technique. It was applauded as aggressive and strong until it broke someone’s jaw. And only then did the Roosters, and NRL deems it was something that needed changing.  

Reactive strategies by definition cannot be deemed as player safety strategies, as the only concern is after an incident, and this problem is reflected in the judiciary system. When you observe the point system, you can see shoulder charge, deliberate high tackles, kicking and striking are all minimum one-game suspension, even with an early guilty plea. Yet dangerous throws, which have a history of breaking necks, and backs across the football codes, are left at no game suspension with an early guilty plea.

More proactive codes such as union implemented their card system to go along with the judiciary. Even the English Super League has taken this idea and implemented it into their league during the 2018 season. This system has players spending time on the sidelines, or being removed for the game for dangerous and careless behaviour.

If the NRL was actually for player safety as they claim, both Jake Friend and Billy Slater should have never lined up for the Grand Final yesterday. A dangerous throw should at least have the same base penalty as a shoulder charge. While the intention may not be to put a player on his head, the actual technique of the tackle is to put pressure on the shoulder blades, which means there is always intent to put them on the ground at an angle. The fact that a 100 base penalty was all Jake Friend received was an absolute joke, as his tackle had the full intent and could have ended with a serious injury.

Billy Slater getting off through loopholes in the wording also exemplifies how the spectacle is greater than player safety. Yes, if he tried to ensure Sosaia Feki’s safety it was a guaranteed try, but he solely braced for his own protection with no real regard for Feki. Even with his “raised arm”, if his shoulder had contacted the head, rather than Feki hitting his pectoral, it could have caused a serious concussion. Yet the NRL wanted him in the Grand Final, and so he escaped his charges. This wasn’t the first time loop-holeshave been used to mitigate serious incidents either for a Grand Final.

That brings us into the actual game itself. Whether the referees need clearer instructions or need further training to the rule book, there were a number of dangerous and unsportsmanlike incidents that were left unpunished throughout the game. How is it that two dangerous throws within 20 minutes only result in penalties? In both the English Super League and Rugby Union, the original from Jake Friend would have at least been a yellow card, if not the second from Mitchell Aubusson becoming a red purely for the repeat incident.

There was also an attacking raid from Will Chambers, which was defused by the tackle and subsequent push over the sideline by Latrell Mitchell. While this tackle and the momentum was clean, after momentum came to a halt, Latrell gave a secondary push and Chambers ended up hitting the advertising sign. As a tackle that carries through once momentum has ended or a tackle with a secondary push would be defined as a penalty, is it fair Latrell get away with absolutely no repercussions for an incredibly unsportsmanlike act? Advertising signs have been central in a couple of key injuries in the past few years, and if Will had lost his balance and gone over it backwards, he may have had a serious injury. But again, Latrell faced no criticism.

Cameron Munster received two sin-binnings, one for an unprofessional foul on a line-break and the other for kicking. Both of these were correct decisions, but then how does Daniel Tupou avoid any backlash for dropping his knees into Josh Addo-Carr while scoring the intercept try? Going off the judiciary charges listed above, dropping or leading with the knees is a 200 point penalty, yet not even a penalty was called on the play. The video ref defended it by claiming his knees contacted the ground first, but that only slightly mitigates the momentum he gathered running at full tilt and leading with the knees. Even with the reduced momentum, that was an incredibly dangerous and unprofessional play and could have led to a broken rib, or caused damage to the hip and pelvic region.

Another seemingly innocuous play was done by Victor Radley defending Luke Keary as he lined up for the field goal attempt. While the replays showed Billy Slater milked the contact a bit, it doesn’t change the fact that Victor reduced his balance and centre of gravity, thus creating a more dangerous situation by moving his feet inwards, and they had barely been set for a full second before Billy collided with the legs. Other sports such asbasketball have clear rules about establishing the position in advance of contact being made, to protect both attacking and defending players. If Billy had collided slightly differently, he could have walked away with a serious knee injury, and this is just another incident that was let go with minimal reasoning from the referees.

This is not all based on the Roosters either. The Melbourne Storm were guilty of similar behaviour. During one attacking kick in the second half, Daniel Tupou catches the ball in the air and is immediately tackled and thrown onto the ground by Suliasi Vunivalu. Again, the commentators were left stumped, with the only explanation that was given being that “he was the attacking player”. Just because you are trying to score, does not mitigate simple common sense and safety, not to mention the double standards of “the attackers don’t need protection”.

With how he landed, knee, ankle or upper body damage could have been sustained, and Suliasi walks away scot-free. Another incident involved the giant Nelson Asofa-Solomona, where he ran a decoy directly into two defenders, who were not braced for impact and were subsequently knocked down. While Billy Slater immediately surrendered and took no advantage, that is still an incredibly reckless play and could have led to injury, yet once again the referees let it slide.

These incidents all highlight how the referees and the NRL were more focused on having a flowing and enjoyable spectacle, rather than the actual health and well-being of the players, despite statements to the contrary since the unfortunate Alex Mckinnon incident. If any of these incidents had led to serious injury, we would hear about the reactive strategies over the next few weeks. But due to the fact no-one was hurt, the NRL is happy to play along and pretend it was a safe and top quality game.

The referees themselves have some responsibility to take, as they are directly on the field and seeing how these tackles and incidents have unfolded. Yet due to their loose enforcement of the rulebook, they did nothing to try to prevent or dissuade repeat offenses. It is also worth raising the question as to whether the two-on field and two touch judges is actually an effective system.

How is it possible that on Blake Ferguson’s no try, it was sent upstairs checking for a foot on the line and a potential knock-on in the one-on-one strip, yet the ball clearly travelled two metres forward from the tap back in, and not one single referee raised this as an issue or a potential problem to check? If Blake had leapt from within the field, would that have been picked up? Or would a blatant knock on be left to change the outcome of a play? Isn’t the job of a touch-judge to observe knock-on and forward passes? Do they deserve to maintain their position when they miss such blatant calls?

Another similar incident was when a Melbourne player dropped a defensive kick and it appeared to travel backwards ,yet the referees ruled a knock-on. The only defence the commentators had was “this angle doesn’t show it travelling forward”. When a ball appears to go back on the only television angle shown, how can you expect the average fan to believe the touch judges and referees are adequately doing their jobs? If on the ground it was clearly forward, then how about giving a more intellectual explanation?

These dangerous and careless incidents and missed calls ruined the game for myself, and a range of other people I have discussed with. Not one person has said that it would have changed the result, or that the Roosters shouldn’t have won. But we walk away from one of the pinnacle games of the sport jaded and disappointed, fearing where the league will head next year.

For contact sports such as Rugby League, careless and dangerous contact and injury are unavoidable. However, it is imperative that player health and safety is always at the forefront of every decision made. Yet, it’s increasingly clear that the NRL clearly has its mind set on making a marketable and profitable product over fulfilling their duty of care to players and clubs. The fact one of their taglines is that they are for player safety and well-being is an absolute farce.

As highlighted, the grand final was full of dangerous and careless incidents, and not a single comment or statement was released by the NRL head office, or the Referees Association regarding these slights. Waking up Monday morning, I was still left with a bitter taste and the feeling that the NRL has just become a money-focused league, who hide behind the idea of “player safety” without actually implementing it.