Alternatives to send-off rule worth exploring – there is a better option for blatant foul play like Suaalii’s shocker


If ever you needed an example of why referees are damned if they do and damned if they don’t, exhibit A is the absurd outcry from some dinosaurs over the Joseph Suaalii send-off. 

Player A hit Player B in the head and even though Player B slipped ever so slightly after passing the ball, the actions of Player B knocked him senseless which meant he would take no further part in the game. 

From the instant that Suaalii’s shoulder made contact with Walsh’s chin, the referee and Bunker officials had no alternative course of action in the current interpretations of that black and white document known as the rulebook other than to remove the NSW centre from the game. 

But that decision led to the predictable outcry from past players and coaches on both sides of the State of Origin divide that while admitting it should have been a send-off in a club game, there should have been a different set of rules or threshold for such drastic action in the representative arena. 

Sad but true that these are people with tons of experience in the sport and despite what you think about some of their antics, plenty of credibility otherwise for their rugby league knowledge like Andrew Johns and Paul Vautin. 

If the parchment on their ye olde rulebook of yesteryear was the rule of the land, the worst Suaalii would have copped was 10 minutes in the sin bin for an offence that was ultimately classified a grade-two reckless offence by the match review committee in their sober analysis post-game and worthy of at least a four-match suspension. 

Queensland’s fate in this scenario would have been for their star fullback to have been taken out (deliberately or accidentally depending on whether you think it was part of the Blues’ game plan) of the action through no fault of his own, even if you think he contributed to the impact by slipping slightly after passing to Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow to make a break. 

The Maroons would be compensated by the one spare bench player being activated – Felise Kaufusi, hardly a like for like replacement – while the Blues, after 10 minutes of playing with 12, would continue on as if nothing happened for the rest of the match. 

Putting aside the rather large spectre of concussion litigation and the sport’s attempts to show that it is getting serious about player safety, how would that scenario be fair for the Maroons to lose one of their team through an act of blatant foul play and the perpetrator to escape with a short stint in the naughty corner?

The referee, Ashley Klein, and his Bunker colleague Liam Kennedy did exactly what they should have done by sending Suaalii off. 

Joseph Suaalii is sent off by referee Ashley Klein. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Whether it was seven minutes into the match, his Origin debut or that it’s “not his go” couldn’t be more irrelevant. 

It was a thuggish act and he got what he deserved. 

The argument that a send-off “ruins the spectacle” of a match is a curious one at best. It’s not up to the match officials to ensure that any game is manipulated to be kept close, in fact their job is the opposite – to dispassionately apply the rules so that one team does not get an unfair advantage by breaking them. 

There can and should be a measured debate over pros and cons of the send-off rule but all consequences need to be thoroughly investigated before the ARL Commission would even consider an alternative. 

Aussie rules, at the professional level, has managed to exist for nearly 130 years without needing a rule where a player can be removed from the game for any timeframe yet the sport hasn’t descended into rampant violence. 

Soccer has the yellow card warning system then either a send-off or a player gets another or a straight red for serious offences. 

Rugby union has the 10-minute or rest of the match options available to its referees and has trialled a system where a sent-off player can be replaced after a 20-minute review. 

Other sports like basketball have a set-up where a player is ejected from a game but the team is able to replace them with someone on the bench. 

For a sport like rugby league where a game-day squad of 17 would be reduced to 16, this is actually a viable option. 

In the Suaalii example, the Blues would have been down to 16 available players for the rest of the match while retaining 13 on the field. Queensland would still have been at 17 with Kaufusi coming into the rotation for Walsh. 

The disadvantage to the Blues is not as significant in that scenario and Queensland should still be able to have fresher legs in the later stages of the match. 

If that system was ever adopted, Suaalii’s replacement from the moment he gets sent off would at the very least have to count as one of their eight interchanges for the match. 

And the Blues should still be forced to be a player down for 10 minutes before the Suaalii replacement can come on to bring them back to 13 on the field. 

That would mean you could still have sin bins for professional fouls and lower-impact acts of foul play but someone sent off like Suaalii would play no further part in the game but his team would be able to replace him after the equivalent 10-minute period. 

Change is frequently a very slow process in rugby league and whenever it is proposed there is usually resistance from the usual suspects who think the way something has always been done is the best way. 

This system of 10 minutes off then being replaced by someone else for the rest of the match is worth considering but you could still argue that the perpetrator’s team is not being punished enough. 

Whichever way the rugby league rulemakers go, they will never please everybody, just like those nasty match officials last Wednesday night who have copped all this criticism for doing nothing more than their job.

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