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Debate surrounding ludicrous rugby league tackle leaves union fans baffled

BY Philip Bendon  ·  Thursday Jun 6, 2024

State Of Origin, a contest like no other! That is how Australian Rugby League’s biggest game is pitched, and with good reason.

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With giant international viewership figures, a fierce interstate rivalry and over forty years of history, the annual contest between the New South Wales Blues and Queensland Maroons is a spectacular sporting event.

Whilst there can be little debate that Rugby Union remains king in terms of the international game, there is nothing quite like State Of Origin in the XV-a-side game.

So when a major incident match-altering event takes place within the opening ten minutes of the first match of 2024, there is little surprise that it would cause a whirlwind of debates.

The incident in question involves the soon-to-be Rugby Union player Joseph Sua’ali’i, who confirmed that he will be joining the Waratahs in Super Rugby Pacific next season.

At 6’5″ and 100kg, the ultra-talented 20-year-old is expected to play in the back three as he does in league, with many tipping him to be the next coming of Israel Folau for the Tahs and Wallabies.

Playing in his first Origin match, Sua’ali’i looked to make an early statement by putting in a significant tackle on the Maroons’ superstar fullback, Reece Walsh.

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Unfortunately for all involved, Sua’ali’i completely misjudged his effort in an ugly incident that left Walsh unable to continue.

The tackle would see Sua’ali’i become only the sixth player to receive a red card in Origin.

While in Union, there would simply be no debate about the incident meeting the red card threshold, it has certainly caused a stir in the league world.

Discussing the incident on the highly popular ‘NRL 360’ former league stars Braith Anasta and Gordon Tallis were joined by Australian journalists Phil ‘Buzz’ Rothfield and James Hooper.

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Opening the conversation, Anasta, who hosts the show, said, “A highly controversial moment that had a huge impact on the game.” Before bringing in the panel to debate, “Let’s bring the journalists in Buzz Rothfield and James Hooper.

“Let’s get straight to it and not beat around the bush. This has divided the rugby league world over the past 24 hours; a lot of people have opinions on this call on Joseph Sua’ali’i. How did we see it

Firing back first, the ever-present Rothfield said, “I don’t know why we’re even having a debate. I thought he had to go.

“We had a national television audience; we had four million people, not all rugby league people, watching the game. A marquee player, the face of Queensland, was brutally taken out by an illegal hit with a shoulder to the head, absolutely no question. It was a send-off.” Rothfield concluded.

Agreeing with Rothfield, Hooper said, ” In the modern game, it’s direct contact with the head; it’s forceful.

“Joseph’s left his feet. Yes, Reece Walsh was slipping, so there is an element that also needs to be factored in.

“But I commend the referee, Ashley Klein. I think he showed a serious set of stones on that stage with so much intense focus on this contest and what it means to both states to make that call in the eighth minute of a match.”

Finally offering his opinion, Tallis, who is regarded as one of Rugby League’s greatest ever players, said, “It takes a lot of conviction and intestinal fortitude, and he showed it, and I think a lot of people have it upside down. It’s our greatest showpiece because of players like Reece.

“There is no popular player than him. You don’t want to lose anybody to injury, and with that tackle, you know, is it an accident? Maybe it is, maybe it’s not.

“He’s gone out with force, and no one likes seeing Joey in his debut match go. But he hit him in the head, and it’s a send-off, and people are saying, oh, it’s a state of origin, so your brain right is less important in a state of origin than it is at club level?” Tallis quizzed.

Seemingly to all be in agreement, it became Anasta’s time to offer his view on the incident which seemed to catch the rest of the panel off guard.

“It’s a tough one because, really, in a club game, it’s a send-off straightaway.” Anasta began, “We know that, and we try to protect the player and the player’s head. And if you’re a New South Welshman and it was one of your players, you’re saying send-off straightaway.”

“But my thing with this is there are mitigating circumstances.

“But still, I believe it was enough for him to be sent. But he was slipping, and he lost his feet before he threw the pass.

“Sua’ali’i had already been set to tackle him, and you watch here he completely loses his feet.

“So Sua’ali’i , you can see there like he’s passing the ball. Joseph hasn’t even got to him. His feet are slipping, sliding into the tackle.

“So there are mitigating factors going into the tackle. So there are mitigating circumstances here, and for me, always, with a send-off and with Origen being as big as it is, normally it’s when a player is, with intent, going to take someone’s head off intentionally.” Anasta concluded.

The first to respond was Tallis, who said, “I get that and make some good points, mate. There’s some great points there and you’re correct with all of them.”

“You watched Liam Martins’s hit in the second half on (J’maine) Hopgood Flies out with the same intent, hits him just as hard, hurts Hopgood and what happened? Where did he hit him?”

“Yeah, but what happened?” Anasta questions

But if Hopgood slips, he hits him in the guts, he hits him in the ribs. So he’s what I know so, like a great defender, his tackle technique is lower.” Tallis concluded.

“But he said, the same lower is a send-off too severe, though? Could it have been ten in the bin? Anasta questioned in the face of Rothfield’s protestations.

“No its not” Rothfield fired back.

“But you’re arguing a slip of the feet by Reese Walsh on a rugby league field in every game, every week. Players will slip on slippery surfaces. Now, that doesn’t mean he has to leave himself open to being knocked out in the manner in which he was.” Rothfield said.

“Yeah, I’m not arguing that he shouldn’t have been sent.  I’m just saying there are mitigating circumstances, and I worry about the game as well as head knocks.

“I worry about the game, its Origin, you’ve got families that are paying hundreds of dollars to be there, and you could argue that after seven and a half minutes, I believe the game was over, and possibly, I’d say most likely the series. I was there with the punters last night, listening to what the punters had to say and watching people leave at half-time at an origin match.

“You know what we also have to look after the actual game as well.” Anasta said.

“You know what? I don’t want to keep interrupting. It is far more important to protect Reece Walsh and superstars like him, who was knocked unconscious against Penrith by May earlier this year.

“He was knocked unconscious again last night, and we’re not even halfway through the season. He is the face of rugby league.” Rothfield said.

“I get it and I agree with you?” Anasta said before Tallis asked a very pertinent question, “Do you think they’re targeting him?” 

“Why couldn’t and I will get to that? Why couldn’t they just say ten in the bin?” Anasta said.

Joining the debate, Hooper was quick to point out that it was the referee who made the call immediately saying, “That was a referee call. 

That was a referee call, he said immediately, as soon as he saw it unfold, live. He said I’m thinking send-off and then the bunker (TMO equivalent) was obviously also involved in reviewing the situation.”

Arguing that from a sporting standpoint, had Sua’ali’i bit been sent off it would have been against the spirit of the game.

“Then Queenslanders would have thought it would be unfair on them when you lose a superstar (Walsh) like that for a whole game for foul play, and someone gets 10 minutes,” Tallis said.

“I think we need to change it, I think we need to protect the game in all aspects,” Anasta said.

Referencing the current Rugby Union red card trial that is being rolled out in Super Rugby Pacific, Anasta said, “You can activate the 18th man after a certain time rugby union with a red card, a player goes off for 20 minutes, and then they can bring a player off the bench, something like that. I think we need to look at it.” 

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