Head slams can only be eradicated with lengthy bans

The kind of foul play we saw on Sunday when Jared Waerea-Hargreaves slammed Tom Burgess’ head into the Allianz Stadium turf is exactly what you get as a sport when you use a feather touch on thugs.

NRL players have taken note of the leniency for cheap shots this season and when you combine it with the pressure of an elimination final between clubs with more than a century of animosity, nobody should be surprised by both teams pushing the limits of thuggery and skullduggery.

They see someone like Storm prop Nelson Asofa-Solomona escape suspension all year long and only cop fines despite being charged five times and avoiding any repercussions for a couple of incidents which left Warriors hooker Wayde Egan with cracked teeth and Joseph Suaalii lucky not to have suffered a broken jaw.

Waerea-Hargreaves was lauded by his coach, teammates, fans and certain sections of the media for standing up to Asofa-Solomona in the Round 24 win in Melbourne a couple of weeks ago.

You can see why he would feel he’s got a licence to do whatever is needed on the field to ensure his team is not intimidated through the middle of the ruck.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 11: Jared Waerea-Hargreaves of the Roosters reacts after been sent to the sin bin by referee Ashley Klein during the NRL Elimination Final match between the Sydney Roosters and the South Sydney Rabbitohs at Allianz Stadium on September 11, 2022 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Burgess is cut from a similar cloth and he had been sailing close to the wind with a couple of high shots in the first half on James Tedesco, which ruled the Roosters skipper out for the rest of the game, and Matt Lodge.

It was a clear attempt at retribution by JWH. If the refs are only going to use the sin bin and not send anyone off, it’s a risk worth taking. 

The veteran Rooster now faces the prospect of missing three World Cup matches for the Kiwis while Burgess, for the hit on Tedesco which somehow did not result in a sin-binning, is staring down the barrel of a two-game ban as the Bunnies prepare for Saturday’s Semi-Final showdown with the Sharks. 

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If the bans for these repeat offenders were doubled to four and six respectively, that’d be a more appropriate result.

Waerea-Hargreaves is hoping a Kiwis’ warm-up game against Leeds will be included in his ban which would mean he would only miss pool matches against Jamaica and Lebanon before suiting up against Ireland before the quarter-finals.

Rabbitohs coach Jason Demetriou was spot on in his post-match media conference when he questioned the professionalism of any player who head slams an opponent.

It’s the kind of act which deserves to be ranked down there with insidious acts like eye gouging, biting and stomping which, apart from rare instances, have all but been abolished from the game. 

 (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

“We’re talking about concussions as a serious part of our game and we’re talking about referees and the game as whole doing things to make sure we’re protecting the players but if a player wants to hold somebody who’s defenceless and slam their head into the ground, where’s the responsibility coming back on the player?” Demetriou said.

“I just think it’s an ordinary act and I think the game has to come down on it. They know what they’re doing. You know what you’re doing when you’re slamming a bloke’s head in the ground and I just think as a player, you’ve got to have some respect for the opposition. If you don’t, who are you?

“It’s not just the Roosters, it’s across the board, it’s happening,” he added, without mentioning Asofa-Solomona by name. He didn’t have to. 

“Tom’s a big man but everybody saw how bad he got out of that tackle and I’m not just saying it just for Tom but for all players, to take a look at how we look after each other is important.”

NRL head of football Graham Annesley quite rightly backed the referees for the way they handled the chaos on Sunday, laying the blame at the feet of the players.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 11: Jared Waerea-Hargreaves of the Roosters speaks with referee Ashley Klein during the NRL Elimination Final match between the Sydney Roosters and the South Sydney Rabbitohs at Allianz Stadium on September 11, 2022 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

(Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

He said the officials were the only ones who were in control and praised them for “staying the course” by continuing to put players in the bin.

“Clearly a lack of discipline by the players,” he replied when asked at his Monday afternoon media conference why there was a record seven sin-binnings. “The match officials react to what happens. 

“Our objective is to try to keep everyone on the field but that’s not in the hands of the match officials, that’s in the hands of the players and how they approach the game and yesterday we saw a whole range of incidents that took place where players frankly took those decisions out of the hands of the referees and the bunker.

“It was disappointing that we saw as many incidents as we did and to the credit of the coaches, they didn’t try to switch attention to the match officials.

“Players know where that line in the sand is about compliance with the rules and what’s acceptable and what’s not. And yesterday on multiple occasions they crossed that line. That’s not the fault of the referees, that’s not the fault of the bunker, nor the touch judges, that’s the actions of the players.”

It’s not too far-fetched for fans to think the prevalence in seemingly deliberate acts which cause damage to an opponent’s head is a way to force them off for, at the very least, an HIA, which disrupts the opposition team’s interchange rotation even if the victim passes the test.

The independent doctor in the bunker is frequently, and rightfully, ordering anyone off who could be suffering from a concussion. It’s not difficult to see how some fans think teams are looking to get any benefit they can and if they can force a player off for an HIA with a sneaky act which doesn’t warrant a sin bin, then they could indeed employ such an underhanded tactic.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 01:  Paul Gallen of the Sharks takes on the Titans defence during the round 12 NRL match between the Cronulla Sharks and the Gold Coast Titans at Toyota Stadium on June 1, 2008 in Sydney, Australia.  (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Paul Gallen takes on the Titans defence for Cronulla in 2008. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Premiership-winning Sharks skipper Paul Gallen was in hot water in 2008 when footage showed him sticking his fingers inside the bandage of Titans forward Anthony Laffranchi, trying to reopen a head wound. Basically, he was trying to exploit the rule which forced players off if they were bleeding. 

It would be a sad day for rugby league if players are engaging in similar tactics because of the automatic substitution rules in place for concussions.

Which is why Demetriou’s plea for professionalism is salient.

The NRL players, for the most part, are a brotherhood off the field, represented by an official union which is much stronger than past versions of the RLPA. 

If you head slam your brother, even if they’re wearing different colours, you shouldn’t be allowed in the family.

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