Cronulla forward Dale Finucane and Penrith centre Stephen Crichton embraced on the sideline at BlueBet Stadium before the Panthers star was taken to hospital for emergency surgery on his left ear after a sickening head clash with the Sharks veteran.
While the incident wasn't deemed foul play at the time, Finucane was hit with a grade three charge by the match review committee on Sunday and is facing a 2-3 week ban.
Panthers doctor Scott Reid worked to ensure Crichton’s ear held together until he could undergo plastic surgery that is expected to sideline the NSW Origin centre from next Friday night’s clash with Parramatta at CommBank Stadium.
Even if his ear heals in time, Crichton will have to pass the NRL’s strict HIA protocols before being cleared to return after being forced from the field in the 71st minute of the match, won 20-10 by Penrith.
French captain Ben Garcia, who had a stint with Penrith in 2016, suffered a similar injury while playing for Catalans against Warrington in the Super League Magic Round two weeks ago and was scheduled to return in this weekend’s match against Huddersfield.
Crichton sent for HIA following big hit
"If you have seen his ear, it is like a car crash," Panthers coach Ivan Cleary said. "His ear is awful so he is going off to get plastic surgery now.
"[The doctor] just put it together, just to hold it, and he has gone to hospital. He has seen better days but he is in good spirits."
Crichton returned to the sideline at full-time and embraced a number of Sharks players, including Finucane.
He also did a brief interview with ABC Radio.
“I’m only getting my senses back now,” Crichton said. “I can’t remember what happened. It’s good to get my memory back now. The cut happened from the head clash.”
The incident sparked a melee and angry Panthers players called for Finucane to be sent off after he shot out of the defensive line to launch himself at Crichton.
However, referee Ashley Klein told them Crichton's injury was the result of a head clash and the Bunker agreed that there had been nothing illegal in the tackle by Finucane.
While acknowledging that there was no malice on Finucane’s behalf, Penrith coach Ivan Cleary believed action should have been taken against the former NSW Origin forward for the careless nature of his challenge on Crichton.
“Firstly, I am sure that the last thing Dale Finucane wanted to do was injure 'Critta' and I guess historically a head clash has been a head clash, but I just kind of think that for how easy it is to give a high tackle penalty away now for contact with the head, it just looked bad," Cleary said.
“Critta is not in a great way so there is certainly an argument there for careless, I would think, but again that’s currently the interpretation.
“I was worried about Critta, that was the first thing I thought, but I thought we would at least get a penalty.
"I am not exactly sure of interpretations but that is clearly contact with the head. It knocks him out. It is just weird that that is okay but the mildest of taps, sometimes, is not okay."
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Penrith co-captain Isaah Yeo was on the bench at the time but was close enough to the action to confirm that team-mates had wanted Finucane sent off.
“I wasn’t on the field but they were obviously asking the question," he said. "It just looked ugly but that is how it was ruled."
Sharks coach Craig Fitzgibbon admitted the incident didn't look good but he believed that Finucane had done nothing wrong.
“It was a big head clash from what I saw," Fitzgibbon said. "His arms did come up spectacularly after it, but I thought it was flush contact to the head for me."