This article was first written and published for the Roar.
When the Parramatta Eels scored their third try yesterday against the Penrith Panthers to make the score line 14-0, I had a devastating feeling of déjà vu.
In the exact same game in the exact same round last year that Parramatta got out to the same lead. Then Mitchell Moses was sent to the sin bin just before half time, the two teams went into the sheds and when the Eels came back for the second half they capitulated.
Parramatta went on to lose that game 24-14 and it really set the tone for the remainder of what was a dismal season.
Yesterday’s game followed a similar narrative; except everything was slightly delayed. It took the Eels until the 44th minute to be 14-0 up thanks to a Reed Mahoney try. It was at this point that I started to panic.
Then, at about the 55th minute, Isaah Yeo was taking the ball up. He lost the ball, Eels debutant Maika Sivo pounced on the ball and ran 30 metres to score.
The try was sent up to the video referee and Sivo was later to be denied a try on debut, once the video referee examined the hit on Yeo.
Michael Jennings’ swinging arm caught Yeo around the chin and it was as a result of this foul play that Yeo dropped the ball. It took Yeo several moments to get to his feet and he eventually left the field.
Most commentators thought that once the ruling had been made by the video referee the Panthers would receive a penalty and play would continue. But then a decision was made which had the potential to turn the game on its head.
Referee Ashley Klein called out Eels captain Clint Gutherson and Jennings and ruled that because it was unlikely that Yeo would return to the field, Jennings should be put on report and sent to the sin bin for 10 minutes.
This prompted confusion. Especially amongst the commentators.
Andrew Voss found it ‘extraordinary’ that Michael Jennings was sin-binned. Michael Ennis saw the contact as not deliberate and offered the excuse of ‘accidents happen in this game’.
But the call was correct and I applaud Ashley Klein for making a bold decision.
Last year there was a change to the NRL Laws and Interpretations. The Australian Rugby League Commission endorsed a recommendation from the Competition Committee to strengthen the sin bin rule to protect players from foul play.
Prior to this rule change, referees could only send a player to the sin bin if the player impacted by the foul play was unlikely to return to the field. Now referees are able to use the sin bin for foul play whether the player impacted has to leave the field or not.
This explanation of the rules also answers another question which Andrew Voss had during the game which is what happens if a player stands up immediately after high contact and then leaves the field minutes after?
This happened in the game on Friday night between the Sydney Roosters and the South Sydney Rabbitohs when Latrell Mitchell put a high shot on Sam Burgess. Burgess later left the field and Mitchell stayed on the field.
Given the changes in the rules though, it was also in the referee’s discretion to send Mitchell off in these circumstances.
Accident or not, it is imperative that we protect our players from high contact, particularly given the increased research and understanding about the impact of concussion.
I know that rugby league is a contact sport and that mistakes and accidents happen. But if an accident causes an injury or an accident is careless, then it still needs to be appropriately addressed.
Additionally, it makes sense to send off a player for ten minutes, to give the team impacted by the foul play an advantage.
In a circumstance where a team is down a player for the remainder of a game due to high contact, that team receives no benefit during the game if the player charged with high contact is simply put on report.
That potentially only impacts the charged player and his team in coming rounds (if he misses games).
And we saw that advantage play right into Penrith’s hands during this game. In the ten minutes when Jennings was off the field, the Panthers scored two tries and fought their way back into the game, reducing the deficit to just two.
But as an Eels fan it would be remiss of me not to remind you all how the story ended. Even though I had déjà vu when the score was 14-0, this story had a happy ending. The Eels went on to defeat the Panthers 20-12 and claim their first win of the year.
It will be interesting to see how Penrith bounce back from this loss. Last year they were the comeback kings and on average scored 14 points in the second half of each game.
However, 2019 may be different given the off-season that the club has just had. You would be foolish to think that that hasn’t had an impact.
Time will tell.