There’s one topic in the news leading up to this weekend’s NRL Grand Final; the fate of Melbourne Storm fullback Billy Slater who faces the prospect of missing the game due to suspension. Slater faces the judiciary tonight because of his try-saving tackle shoulder charge on Sharks winger Sosaia Feki early in last weekend’s preliminary final, something that’s restarted the debate whether the game’s showpiece event should be treated differently.
Such debate is nothing new and surfaces periodically whenever a high-profile player might miss the decider; current Warriors hooker Isaac Luke was the last when he was rubbed out of the 2014 Final for Souths. In Slater’s case he has no option but to contest the charge against him, as even taking an early guilty plea will see him watching on from the stands.
There’s probably little argument that if this was following a round 5 match early in the season it’d be a non-event. But because this is the Grand Final (and compounded by it being the retiring Slater’s last ever NRL match anyway), things should be different.
Or should they?
If things were to be treated differently for the Grand Final, where do you draw the line? Would there be the same outcry if it was someone like the Roosters’ Dylan Napa, himself no stranger to controversy, in danger of missing out? What if Slater (or anyone else) had knocked a bloke out? What if it happened in the first week of the playoffs and carried a long enough suspension to see the player miss the final?
While Slater’s actions are certainly at the more innocuous end of the scale – there wasn’t any contact to the head or neck and it wasn’t inherently dangerous – the fact remains that there’s still a process to be followed under the game and competition he plays in; had it happened in union for example it probably would have been dealt with with a penalty try and a yellow card, and that would have been the end of it.
Slater certainly has a number of supporters across the game, some of it driven by sentiment and not seeing one of the NRL’s greats denied his last game by a bunch of blokes in suits. But circumstances, sentiment, sympathy, or public outcry shouldn’t be factors in whatever the outcome tonight is; else it makes a mockery of the system that is in place.
There’s little doubt that the Grand Final will be the poorer if Slater doesn’t take the field one last time but he has to beat the charge on its merits. Not because of who he is or what game is up next.
But this being the NRL, who knows what’ll happen.
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