Slater-Haters Be Damned, The NRL Got The Vibe Right

There is a line of thought that the rugby league universe is broken this morning.

That because Billy Slater was cleared to play in the NRL Grand Final, it’s now one rule for retiring grand final legends and another rule for everyone else.

My mate Stu made that point in an impassioned discussion we had on Twitter last night, and if you’re reading this, I bet you had similar banter with your mates too.

But here’s the thing.

Regardless of what you feel about the decision to clear Slater for a tackle originally deemed a shoulder charge on Cronulla Sharks winger Sosaia Feki, you’ve got to admit that the NRL Judiciary was damned if they did and damned if they didn't.

Clear him, and they were pandering to a champion. Ban him, and they were adhering too strictly to the letter of the law. Which way would they fall? Which way SHOULD they fall?

The answer was obvious. Never mind the legalities and technicalities and all those other “alities”. The judiciary should rule on the side of “the vibe”.

As we all know, the greatest legal mind in Australian history was the fictitious lawyer Denis Denuto from the movie The Castle.

“It’s the vibe of the thing,” Denuto famously argued in defence of his client Darryl Kerrigan. And the vibe in this case was unquestionably that Billy Slater should be allowed play.

Why? Three reasons.

A man's grand final is his castle. Image: Village Roadshow/Miramax Films

Firstly, because of who he is.

If a person’s character is taken into account in the legal system -- in everything from appearances before a magistrate for shoplifting to the most heinous crimes -- why should it not be a factor in sporting trials like this?

Slater has distinguished himself for the Storm, Queensland and Australia for 16 seasons. He is special. Which doesn’t make him above the law, but it sure affords him a little bit of leeway.

Image: AAP.

Secondly, because of uncertainty over the point of contact.

Slater successfully argued that the first point of contact was with his pec, not his shoulder, that he tried to wrap both hands around Feki, and that Feki changed direction and came infield, which contributed to the contact that was made.

This, as mentioned, is technical, but it’s important. It was very, very hard to say without question that there was no arm involved.

And remember, the shoulder charge rule, as amended in early 2017, states that a charge will be laid if:

  • The contact is forceful, and;
  • The player did not use, or attempt to use, his arms (including his hands) to tackle or otherwise take hold of the opposing player.

That second bullet point is the important one. Was Slater’s contact harmless? Possibly not but neither could you say it was armless.

Thirdly, and most importantly, because the rule is written wrongly.

The thing about the shoulder charge rule is that it was written for big hulking blokes crashing into each other in the centre of the field. Go in first with your shoulder and oh, you betcha, you’re doing a bell-ringingly dangerous thing and you should be banned.

But the rule, as written, is hopelessly inadequate for dealing with shoulder-first contact in try-saving situations in the corner of the field.

That’s where the vibe comes into it. The vibe is that the letter of the law was written to apply to situations other than this one.

Billy Slater wasn’t trying to rough anyone up. He was trying to stop a try, which as a player whose position is the last line of defence, is his job.

A final thought.

You know what’s wrong with the world today?

It’s that everyone is split into two camps. Every day, every issue, everything is black and white. We saw this both literally and figuratively yesterday in Australian politics with yet another outbreak of the argument over changing the date of our national day.

We won’t weigh into that particular argument here, but you get the point. We are divided. On everything. All the time. Just like the sports-loving world was divided on Slater yesterday.

There were arguments both ways. How to settle them?

The vibe. It really is as simple as that. Gut feeling.

And the overwhelming gut feeling in this case was surely that Slater intended Feki no harm and deserved to play in the grand final. Nothing else really matters.

Feature Image: Village Roadshow/Miramax Films