A rule change prompted by the “almost farcical” scenes of players staying down after any and all contact with the head, however light, was why the Bunker did not step in after a high tackle late in the Storm’s 18-13 semi final win over the Roosters.
In the dying minutes, Melbourne gun Harry Grant stayed down for several seconds after a Sam Walker high tackle.
Through a chorus of boos, referee Ashley Klein blew time off and instructed Grant – who was pointing to his head and could be seen telling him to check with the Bunker – to get up and play the ball.
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In commentary for Nine, Roosters legend Brad Fittler said Grant was “testing” Klein.
Previous rules allowed the Bunker to make calls on penalties in live action, which incentivised players to stay on the ground to allow time for a quick review and a possible penalty.
NRL head of football Graham Annesley said those “almost farcical” scenes were what prompted a rule change 12 months ago to elevate the seriousness of an offence before the Bunker can intervene.
Now, the Bunker cannot intervene during live play unless they determine the offence is enough to go on report or worse.
“So when they reviewed this incident, even though a penalty wasn’t awarded, they couldn’t under our current rules, say to the referee, ‘That’s a high tackle that should be penalised’,” Annesley said in his regular Monday briefing.
“That would be contrary to what we’ve been doing all season. If they had reached the conclusion it was a reportable offence, then they could have got involved.”
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Will Warbrick would score the winning try only moments later after a spectacular leap to grab a Cameron Munster kick.
The high tackle call was the second high-profile non-decision by Klein of the night.
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Midway through the first half, Klein determined Grant had cleanly regathered a ball he had knocked back off a Roosters kick, before replays showed the ball had clearly bounced.
Annesley showed a fresh camera angle (at ground level and further to the left of the one in the above player) from perfectly behind Klein – which showed that the ball touched the ground between Grant’s legs – and at real time, which Annesley said showed Grant regathering the ball almost simultaneously to the naked eye.
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Annesley also pointed out the reaction of the Roosters players, who all immediately got up and ran back on-side without so much as a flap of the arms, suggesting they too might have believed Grant had gathered it cleanly.
“It hits the ground … (and) a split second afterwards gets his hands on the ball. Of course, a split second afterwards is too late and that’s a knock on,” he said.
“You can see Ashley Klein is in a perfect position, but sometimes with the speed of these incidents, your eyes play tricks on you, (but) it’s a decision that he should have picked up.”
As is the case with the later Grant high shot, rules do not allow the Bunker to step in, but even if they did, the lack of a stoppage meant they had no time to review the grab and make a call.
Annesley said Klein first would have become aware of the mistake when he saw a replay in the stadium following a penalty.
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He apologised to Roosters skipper James Tedesco after the try was scored.
Annesley praised the measured reaction of Roosters coach Trent Robinson after the match. Robinson said it was “pretty clear it was dropped”, but said his troops should have defended better.
The 44-year-old Klein is one of the NRL’s most senior whistleblowers. He has controlled 377 games since his debut in 2009, as well as three Anzac Tests, 16 World Cup matches, 14 Origins – including the entirety of the 2022 and 2023 series – and last year’s grand final.
Annesley said the decision on whether or not Klein would be in charge of a preliminary final, or indeed the grand final, had not yet been made.
The Panthers will play the Storm at Accor Stadium on Friday night, before the Broncos host the Warriors at Suncorp Stadium on Saturday.