It’s rugby league, not the Thunderdome: You’re a substandard human if you think Suaalii should’ve avoided send-off


I am at a loss over the sheer number of people who are up in arms over referee Ashley Klein sending Joeseph Suaalii off in the seventh minute of the first State of Origin on Wednesday night.

“You don’t do that in Origin!”

“It destroyed the game!”

“It was an accident!”

“It should only have been ten in the bin!”

What a lot of crap…

Suaalii hit Reece Walsh in the head with his shoulder with great force, leaving the Maroons fullback out cold and flat on his back.

A lesser human, such as myself, may have died from that impact.

Yet so many people act like that result wasn’t enough to justify the send-off.

Whether us crusty old Boomers and Gen Xers like it or not, rugby league has had to change. Sure, State of Origin was really born when Greg Oliphant punched Graeme Wynn in the inaugural match in 1980, followed of course by Artie Beetson doing likewise to Eels teammate Mick Cronin.

And so many of us tuned in or turned up to see New South Welshmen and Queenslanders not just playing the best rugby league games, but also hopefully to see them belt six colours of shite out of each other.

I know I did.

You had Steve Walters belting Benny Elias, Martin Bella and Paul Harragon going toe to toe, Brad Clyde making Bella very sorry that he went egg farming, Spudd Carroll thumping Jason Smith – before Jamie Goddard belted Andrew Johns, Billy Morre and Dave Barnhill swinging haymakers.

Joseph Suaalii after being sent off. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

It was ‘The Stink.’

Us cro-magnons loved it. The broadcasters played it up to us, with the fights regularly used in the promos and weaved into the folklore. Sometimes they still are.

Then in 2013 it all came to and end when Paul Gallen, having had more than he was going to tolerate of Nate Myles’s underhanded niggle, stood up and repeatedly punched the large Queenslander in his large head.

It was big news and the incident was on high rotation. Unfortunately the NRL HQ was inundated complaints, one from a School Headmaster who pointed out what a bad example the fighting set for kids.

And of course that killjoy was right. Deep down we knew he was right.

We were all getting our cheap, voyeuristic jollies from watching those scrappy brawls. But really, any decent humans knew that we shouldn’t be.

And now the fights are gone.

And after being mentioned in hushed tones in back rooms for years, a new monster has come into plain view:

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy – or CTE as we know it.

Don’t take my word for it, here’s what the Concussion Legacy Foundation describes it as: “a degenerative brain disease found in athletes, military veterans, and others with a history of repetitive brain trauma. CTE is caused in part by repeated traumatic brain injuries, which include concussions and nonconcussive impacts.”

Wally Lewis playing for Queensland in State of Origin. (Photo by Tony Feder/Getty Images)

Where better to suffer repeated blows to the head than playing contact sports.

And rugby league is nothing if not a contact sport – the NRL even marketed the Las Vegas games “No Helmets, no padding.”

We’ve already had Mark Carroll, Wally Lewis, Nelson Asofa-Solomona, Dale Finucane and Corey Parker talk about their concerns about having CTE.

The game must do what it can to protect the head. NRL HQ knows that very well.

In at least the last decade there has been a lot more attention given to protecting the heads of players, with the penalties becoming more severe, both within the matches as well as the suspensions.

This policing has also branched out into the focus on hip drops. I can hear people railing against these crackdowns, to paraphrase and amalgamate: “Whaddaya expect?!? It’s a contact sport! You want ‘em to play in tutus?!?”

Well that’s fine for us up in the cheap seats of the Colosseum to say, while eating our pies and drinking our beer. But it’s the gladiators down on the field who bear the consequences.

Sure, lots of them get paid well for it. But, unlike Ancient Rome, most of our civilised society no longer thinks that it is OK for people to risk death for our amusement.

The State of Origin field of play is not the Thunderdome. It is not “Two man enter, one man leaves.”

They might be big, strong brutes. Tough footballers in the men’s and women’s contests. They might play for the team or state that you hate. But they are someone’s kids, someone’s brothers and sisters, someone’s mum or dad.

I’ve been an oft vocal critic of the NRL. But they are trying to get this right. It is one of the rare areas where they are better than the AFL.

In the AFL finals last year Collingwood defender Brayden Maynard left the ground trying to spoil the kick of Melbourne midfielder Angus Brayshaw. When Maynard came down he collided with Brayshaw, hitting him in the head and knocking him out. Brayshaw – having suffered multiple head knocks – will not play in the AFL again.

Maynard was not suspended for the act because the AFL, in spite of having a number of similar incidents to learn from, still allowed for the act to be viewed as accidental (which I truly believe it was) and therefore not punishable.

The NRL’s officials protects the players by still penalising and punishing accidental head contact.

And they are right to do so.

Yes, Reece Walsh was slipping down and was not at full height. Yes, Sua’ali’i almost certainly did not mean to connect with Walsh’s head. Yes, it is not Joseph’s go at all to try and deliberately hurt his opponents.

But he did. Badly.

From the second I saw the replay I knew categorically that he had to be sent off. Anybody with a modicum of common sense knew it.

“You can’t ruin the game for the fans.. the game is the fans!”@JoelCaine strongly disagrees with Joseph Suaalii send off#Origin

— The Run Home with Joel & Fletch (@JoelFletchSEN) June 6, 2024

But still we have utter pillocks – like former Wests Tigers fullback Joel Caine – saying things like this: “You can’t ruin the game for the fans… the game is for the fans!”

Do we, the fans, really want to countenance players being smashed like Walsh was with no commensurate in-game penalty because if they the perpetrator is punished it will ruin our fun?

If you answered yes to that, you need to take a long walk through the room of mirrors and have a good hard look at yourself.

Because right now you’re a substandard human and you need to wake up to yourself.

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