Another week, another reason for the NRL to apologise to the New Zealand Warriors.
In an era where there is so much focus on protecting the heads of athletes in contact sports, there is no apology sincere enough to excuse one of the major talking points to come out of Friday night's loss to the South Sydney Rabbitohs.
Instead of getting to play 80 minutes in his first game back since the competition restarted, Warriors wing David Fusitu'a only just saw out the first half.
Fusitu'a did not return to the game after the halftime break, after being clobbered across the skull by Souths fullback Latrell Mitchell in the 34th minute. With the tryline in sight, Fusitu'a stepped back inside of the charging Mitchell, forcing the Souths fullback to overrun him. Well beaten, Mitchell slapped Fusitu'a across the back of the head. The Warriors wing fell to the ground on his back, and was subsequently smothered by covering defenders who forced the ball free just short of the line.
The play was ruled as a knock-on against Fusitu'a.
Surely that shot from Latrell Mitchell was high? #NRLRabbitohsWarriors— Veronica Eggleton (@veggleton) June 19, 2020
There was no input from the assistant referee on that side of the field suggesting referee Matt Cecchin should take another look at the incident. Despite Fusitu'a remaining crumpled over in the in-goal area after the ruling, play resumed. If the the video referee in the NRL's 'state of the art' bunker had a look at the incident, it was a quick glance at best.
They should have found foul play, instead there was nothing but crickets.
With play halted due to the knock-on ruling and Fusitu'a staying down, there was time to check replays. And surely one of the 57 monitors in the facility showed an angle warranting a penalty – at least – to be awarded against Mitchell. One replay on the Fox Sports broadcast was enough to see Mitchell was not making a play at the ball, and he made intentional contact with Fusitu'a's head.
Instead, Fusitu'a was forced from the field for an HIA which he subsequently failed and was unable to return to play.
Are you allowed to smack someone around the head if it's a try scoring situation? What's doing #NRLSouthsWarriors— Simon Brunsdon (@SimonBrunsdon) June 19, 2020
This isn't good enough.
The NRL is the top level of rugby league in the world, and should be subject to a similar level of refereeing. This was a play one would hope even the most junior official would be able to make – the fact Fusitu'a was left on his haunches afterwards should have been an indication that something was amiss.
A penalty wouldn't have stopped the Warriors losing Fusitu'a for the remainder of the game after the hit, but it would have at least sent a message to the players that that kind of play is not okay. The Warriors would have gotten the ball back, and had another opportunity to strike inside the Rabbitohs' 20. But the officials – the people whose job it is to ensure safe and fair play – decided Mitchell should instead be rewarded for his efforts with possession for his team.
The ruling wouldn't have changed the result. The Rabbitohs were the better side and deserved the win, but in the context of player safety this does not paint the NRL in a good light.
It sends the message that the league will advocate player safety only to brush it off in the heat of the moment. No one is going to complain about delaying the game to check on a player's health. It's okay, the NRL can just apologise for it next week, right? Problem solved; no hard feelings.
The athletes, the clubs and the fans deserve better than that.