An impassioned plea from Darren Lockyer for referees to do more to protect playmakers from late shots helped convince NRL officials to introduce a mid-season rule change enabling players to be sent to the sin bin for foul play.
Until now, referees were severely restricted in their options for dealing with foul play, such as Manly forward Jack Gosiewski’s "dog shot" on Johnathan Thurston or Sam Burgess’s high tackle on Aidan Sezer in recent weeks.
Under NRL rules, referees could not send a player to the sin bin unless the victim was forced from the field due to injury with no likelihood of returning.
Even an incident which resulted in a player leaving the field for a head injury assessment could not be considered sufficient grounds for a sin bin as referees aren’t medically qualified to determine if he could return.
If a player remained on the field after a late tackle, a high shot, a shoulder charge, a crusher, a cannon ball or another illegal act, the only recourse available to referees beyond blowing a penalty was to send the assailant from the field.
Gosiewski’s late shot on Thurston in the May 31 match followed a similar tackle on the North Queensland halfback the previous weekend by Melbourne prop Sam Kasiano, which prompted Lockyer to declare during the Channel 9 commentary: "He should be in the sin bin."
"You talk about the crusher tackles being dangerous, well, it's the same thing, you're attacking the neck when you do that," Lockyer said.
The former Australian captain had just weeks earlier told a meeting of the NRL competition committee that tougher action was needed to discourage late shots on playmakers.
The competition committee also believed referees should be able to use the sin bin for incidents like Canterbury captain Josh Jackson’s late hit on Sezer in round five and Burgess’s round-seven high shot on the Canberra halfback.
Parramatta forward Tepai Moeroa is another player who would have been sin-binned for his round 13 shoulder charge on Newcastle second-rower Chris Heighintgon if that had been an option available to the match officials.
Burgess, Jackson, Moeroa and Gosiewski were all subsequently charged by the NRL match review committee but referees will be encouraged to use the sin bin for serious offences and not just those deemed worthy of being placed on report.
NRL CEO Todd Greenberg announced the rule change at a press conference on Tuesday with ARLC chairman Peter Beattie.
"We have made a decision mid-season, which we don’t do often, to put power in the referee’s hands to use the sin bin for what we think are really, really poor tackles," Greenberg said.
"Some of these things don’t warrant a send-off but they do warrant a sin bin. The rules only allow the sin bin for very specific causes.
"As an example, we see lots of players sent to the sin bin for professional fouls but they can’t use the sin bin for foul play.
"We want to protect the players and when we see players being hit off the ball late and then put in a difficult position we expect the referees to act.
"Referees are being given the power of discretion to send players to the sin bin when we see incidents like those.”
A frustrated Thurston hit out after the Gosiewski tackle, saying: "It shits me. Do I have to get a broken rib before they stamp it out."
But Greenberg revealed that the NRL was already looking to make the rule change ratified at last Thursday’s ARLC meeting in Melbourne.
"The competition committee talked about this at length last year and they talked about it again at length at their meeting in May," Greenberg said. "That was a directive from the competition committee, which I took to the commission.
"When someone of the ilk of Darren Lockyer talks openly about this being a challenge for the game, it is incumbent on people like Peter and myself and the commission to listen and take the advice of those people who know significantly about the game and the history of the game and the way it is played.
"It was very strongly supported by the people sitting on the competition committee that there is a tendency sometimes for things to creep into the game and late shots like this it is ultimately our job to do something about it.
"These are serious incidents, really significant tackles off the ball that are late and are dangerous. Players can expect to be sin binned."