Fines and suspension rise as NRL seeks deterrent for repeat offenders

The amount of time spent on the sidelines by suspended players has almost doubled this season, while more than $40,000 in fines have been dished out by the NRL match review committee.

Revelations of an increase in charges and penalties imposed during the regular season comes amid the annual debate about star players being rubbed out of finals matches due to suspension.

However, the NRL is unlikely to follow the lead of FIFA, who decided to re-set the yellow card count for players after the quarter-final stage of last year’s World Cup to avoid controversy over stars missing the final if they received their second caution of the tournament in a semi-final.  

South Sydney captain Sam Burgess was ruled out of last Friday night’s qualifying final against Sydney Roosters after receiving a one-match ban for hair pulling, while Roosters prop Jared Waerea-Hargreaves must beat a tripping charge to help his team’s bid to make consecutive grand finals.

Waerea-Hargreaves last week convinced the tribunal he was not guilty of a grade one careless high tackle charge - the 10th player to successfully do so this season, while 13 others have tried and failed.

Neither incident would usually result in a suspension but it was Burgess’s fourth judiciary offence this season and Waerea-Hargreaves has either pleaded guilty or mounted an unsuccessful challenge to three previous charges.

The pair are among 26 players to have paid fines ranging between $1100 and $3400 for minor offences this season, including five who have had their pay docked twice - the maximum before a player becomes ineligible for a monetary penalty.

Burgess, Waerea-Hargreaves and North Queensland lock Josh McGuire all exceeded the two-offence limit for fines, with the trio being responsible for 11 of the 136 charges laid by the NRL match review committee during the regular season.

Of those, 126 charges have either resulted in guilty pleas or been upheld by the NRL judiciary.

While the 136 charges handed out before the finals was only marginally up from 112 last season, the number of matches served in suspensions almost doubled from 64 in 2018 to 110 this year.

Some believe the use of carry-over points and loadings are partly responsible for the increase in suspensions but the NRL maintains that there needs to be a deterrent for repeat offenders.

If Burgess did not have three previous judiciary offences this season, he would have escaped suspension for pulling the hair of Roosters rookie Billy Smith as a grade one contrary conduct charge carries a base penalty of 100 demerit points and is one of four offences for which a fine can usually be paid.

Ditto for Waerea-Hargreaves, whose tripping charge also carries a base penalty of 100 demerit points.

The reason the cases of Burgess and Waerea-Hargreaves cause such controversy is because media and fans tend to compare the suspensions imposed for similar incidents without taking into account the records of the players involved.

For example, Manly prop Martin Taupau only received a one-match ban for a grade three careless high tackle that knocked out Parramatta's Ray Stone because of his good judiciary record.

The match review committee only focuses on the incident to ensure consistent grading and does not take into account loading or carry-over points that may be applied if a player has previous offences.

It is the same at judiciary hearings, with panel members known to have been shocked to learn of the suspension imposed on a player due to his record after returning a guilty verdict.

As a result, St George Illawarra’s star NRLW recruit Teuila Fotu-Moala faces the prospect of being suspended for the remainder of the Holden Women’s Premiership after being charged with grade two dangerous contact for a crusher tackle in Sunday’s opening match against Brisbane.

Fotu-Moala can accept a two-match ban with a guilty plea or risk being ineligible for the NRLW grand final if the Dragons make it by challenging the charge at the judiciary.

NRL head of football Graham Annesley said there had been no consideration given to imposing different penalties in the NRLW because of its shortened format but the issue will be reviewed at the end of the season.

The entire judiciary and match review process will also be reviewed but it is unlikely that the NRL will adopt the model introduced by FIFA at the World Cup and in the Champions League for finals matches, or scrap the loading and demerit points system as the AFL did in 2017.

Under the AFL model, low-level offences such as tripping attract fines, which increase for the first three charges from $3,000 to $5,000 to $8,000, while more serious offences result in two-to-three match suspensions.

Players no longer receive a discount for an early plea, except for fineable offences, but if a club challenges a charge that results in suspension they are hit with a $10,000 deduction from their football department salary cap.

The most severe offences, or those that the match review committee is not satisfied that the prescribed penalty is sufficient, are referred directly to the tribunal.

Charges arising from the AFL grand final attract heavier penalties than other matches, including a doubling of fines.