The NRL has once again held itself up to ridicule with its gutless decision to hand Melbourne, Queensland and Australia captain Cameron Smith a grade one dangerous contact charge for blatantly kicking Issac Luke in the face – the match review panel’s version of a slap with a feather.
The paltry 75 demerit points accrued by the game’s greatest hooker allows him to take his place in the Maroons’ side for the State of Origin series opener.
In a stroke of luck, the carryover points from a grade one charge incurred last year for elbowing Manly’s Matt Ballin – which nearly saw Smith rubbed out of Origin I last year – expired a mere six days earlier.
But luck had very little to do with it – Smith’s let-off was seemingly yet another example of a sweetheart deal for one of the code’s supposed ‘cleanskin’ superstars, and the latest in a long line of baffling inconsistencies in the NRL’s judicial process.
The 12-month expiry, halved from the previous two-year rule, was brought in after Smith was suspended for an ugly grapple tackle on Brisbane’s Sam Thaiday in a semi-final and the NRL reluctantly ruled him out of the 2008 NRL Grand Final.
There’s more than a hint of irony that Test rival Luke missed last year’s Grand Final for a grade one lifting tackle courtesy of carryover points.
Billy Slater – another regular beneficiary of judiciary leniency, including no charge for an incident in which his boot caught Canterbury giant David Klemmer in the face – declared his revered skipper was “not that kind of player”.
Smith would probably say the same of Slater, but both have lengthy raps sheets … littered with weak gradings.
Smith lashed out in disturbingly deliberate fashion, and close inspection of the footage suggests he did so after copping a quasi-cannonball tackle from Luke.
But two wrongs (or more accurately, one borderline questionable tackle and one act of recklessness) don’t make a right, and there can be no excuses made for Smith’s furious reaction.
There’s nothing wrong with possessing a bit of fire and mongrel. Clive Churchill, Bob Fulton, Arthur Beetson, Wally Lewis and Andrew Johns all sailed close to the wind; few of the game’s genuine greats got by without doing so. But players like Smith and Slater have to be subject to the same punishments as any other player, as the aforementioned Immortals were in their prime.
Their Teflon-like qualities are becoming increasingly frustrating for everyone other than supporters of their club and representative sides.
The incident was a clear-cut case of dangerous contact – for which Warriors centre Konrad Hurrell is currently serving a three-match ban on a grade three charge for a knee-lift that was several degrees more accidental.
Josh Reynolds received a dangerous contact charge late last season for kicking out at Thaiday, another incident that arguably showed less intent.
But beloved figurehead Smith is free to pick up another rich Origin payday next week, while the likes of Hurrell, NSW stalwart Greg Bird (dangerous tackle, eight weeks) and Parramatta tyro Junior Paulo (dangerous tackle, nine weeks) are on the sidelines due to an archaic loading system that harshly punishes those charged with more realistic gradings.
What if Luke had been seriously injured? I’m sure the NRL could have dredged up another loophole to get Smith off the hook.
The motivation for letting him off so lightly is anyone’s guess, but there’s a palpable, long-established pattern of rules that seem to apply strictly to the Smiths and Slaters of the premiership, which is seriously eating away at the NRL’s integrity and credibility.