Chris Rattue is a sports columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

Chris Rattue: Hit man needs reining in to protect players

Steve Matai. Photo / Getty Images
Steve Matai. Photo / Getty Images

The NRL needs an additional term for its charge sheet: the deliberate high tackle. The first player to aim at is Steve Matai, the Kiwi hit man who is latter-day league's torch bearer for a tradition of thuggery which has starred Les Boyd, Adrian Morley and company.

The NRL's use of the words careless and reckless - which suggest a lack of due care in tackles - is often another trip to the spin doctor's surgery. The fans know. The players know. The coaches know. The medics know. The "waterboys" know. The commentators even know ... not that you'd know from their commentaries.

Those high hits are regularly acts of deliberate intimidation and violence. But nobody wants to say so, lest they break the macho code of conduct, or portray image-obsessed league in a more accurate light.

There is a super-thug in league's midst. Matai has a rap sheet as long as his swinging arms to prove it. He has faced a whopping 13 NRL charges all told, with 11 guilty verdicts. In addition, his shockers include knocking out Mark Gasnier in a 2007 test, which had him sent off.

The KOs just keep coming with Matai. The Manly Maniac knocked out Penrith's Danny Galea in May. Bulldog and fellow Kiwi Sam Perrett can hardly remember Friday night's playoff match after becoming Matai's latest victim. Matai continues to attack his fellow professionals without suffering the sort of bans that the notorious Boyd did long ago, when league had to clean up its act. Pleading guilty, the dedicated repeat offender has received a paltry one-match suspension for the hit on Perrett.

There may be a loophole in the NRL's judicial system that is failing to scoop up Matai and plonk him on the sideline for a decent whack - like a year. But here's a theory: within reason, league secretly likes having a Matai or two around, because they satisfy that primeval attraction to the dark arts. That's also why the NRL still condones the no-arms shoulder charge, which licenses the sickening blindside hit.

I'm absolutely sick of watching Matai's cheap-shot nonsense while an impotent game looks on. There are honourable, fantastic players in the NRL like Nathan Hindmarsh and Micheal Luck who have made thousands of tackles without attacking the head.

The NRL needs to take player safety more seriously, including having the ability to act on complete, cumulative records. A genuine players' association would step in, to protect the majority of members. The Kiwis should take a moral stand and ban Matai. And most importantly, the NRL must re-evaluate a box-ticking judicial system, dust off the history books and find another hanging judge like the one who dealt to Les Boyd. None of this will occur, of course.

Woodcock heads south

Tony Woodcock's flight to the Highlanders isn't exactly an overwhelming endorsement of the Blues' new coaching team but a man desperate to freshen up hardly needed his All Black coach of eight years joining the setup. Woodcock's departure is a blow for the horrible Blues. The young players must stand up and create a new era, but they need a few old heads a la Conrad Smith's influence at the Hurricanes. If Woodcock was tiring of the scene, however, there was no point in staying.

Woodcock is a rugby anomaly - a test powerhouse from the nutty rugby nursery that is North Harbour.

Woodcock at North Harbour is as incongruous as finding a Hummer at an electric car convention. For a test veteran, he's also had a weird ability to blend in to the point of getting lost in the scenery. Before Woodcock had played a first-class game, coaches - including those from other unions - told me he was a star on the rise, that Woodcock was a no-mess Charlie who got the job done.

As such, he's not excited passions like other frontrowers and his out-of-the-Blues transfer was in keeping with the way his career has been conducted. Woodcock's extended Super 15 holiday this year added to signs he was wavering. But he returned in such fine form that those doubts went on the backburner. There is probably more to the story than we've been told. Given this involves the head-down Tony Woodcock, though, we'll probably never know.

- NZ Herald

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Chris Rattue is a sports columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

Chris Rattue writes about a wide range of sports for the New Zealand Herald. He has covered numerous sporting events for the Herald including Rugby World Cups and the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

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