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Wighton vs Ennis: Inside The NRL's Shoulder Charge Controversy

"I don't think they're too fond of the Raiders - they always get shafted, the poor bastards. We're pretty one-eyed down here but they do get the raw end, there's no doubt about that," says Canberra Raiders legend, Jason Croker.

by James Pavey
06 September 2016, 3:30am

Canberra's Jack Wighton: screenshot courtesy of youtube

The National Rugby League's contentious ban on the shoulder charge has reared its ugly head once again after a spate of incidents over the weekend.

Canberra fullback Jack Wighton's season may be over after he was sensationally charged with a grade two offence by the NRL following his shoulder charge on Tigers back-rower Joel Edwards.

If Wighton accepts an early guilty plea, he will miss three games and potentially the rest of the season if his Raiders beat the Sharks in a qualifying final on Saturday. Wighton will miss four games if he fights the charge at tonight's judiciary and loses. And, although unlikely, Wighton will miss two matches if the charge is downgraded.

Conversely, in Cronulla's loss to Melbourne, Cronulla hooker Michael Ennis escaped any charge for his hit on Melbourne five-eighth Blake Green. Ennis took out Green in what appeared to be a late shoulder charge after Green had passed the football. Green stayed down and was attended to by Storm medical staff, but recovered to play out the match.

Cronulla's Michael Ennis escaped a ban for this shoulder charge. Screenshot courtesy of Youtube

The NRL's match review committee (MRC) co-ordinator Michael Buettner explained why Wighton is facing a four-week ban, saying that Wighton's tackle on a runaway Edwards could not be compared to Ennis' tackle on Green as Ennis had his left arm away from his body. According to Buettner, there was a clear difference between Wighton's and Ennis' tackles.

"We look for three key indicators when determining whether a shoulder charge has been made," Buettner said. "They are: The upper arm of the defender must be tucked in to his side at contact; the defender is making no attempt to wrap in the tackle with both arms (and) there is forceful contact by the defender to any part of the body of the attacking player. If all three of these indicators are clearly identified in an incident, then a player will be charged with a shoulder charge.

"In the case of Michael Ennis, it's very clear that the left arm of Ennis is away from his body and not tucked into his side. So no charge was laid. In the Wighton incident, the MRC was satisfied that all three indicators were present and so a charge has been laid."

The MRC is copping anger left, right and centre, with fans, pundits and ex-players confused with the different rulings. Canberra legend Jason Croker even accused the NRL of bias against the Raiders, saying Wighton's punishment was "ridiculous."

"I know there's a duty of care for players but Joel (Edwards) was fine," Croker said. "I don't think they're too fond of the Raiders - they always get shafted, the poor bastards. We're pretty one-eyed down here but they do get the raw end, there's no doubt about that. The 50-50 calls often go against them. It's just disappointing. Common sense has got to prevail but I don't know if they've got it there (at the NRL)."

The shoulder charge rule has been a hot topic ever since it was implemented in 2013, and has reared its ugly head after separate incidents in 2016. During the second State of Origin match a few months ago, Queensland and South Sydney Greg Inglis accepted a three-week ban for a shoulder charge that left NSW counterpart Josh Dugan needing surgery on a broken jaw. The Cowboys' Kyle Feldt faced a five-week ban for a sickening shoulder charge on Canberra's Jarrod Croker in Round 18, which was later downgraded to three games.

One of the biggest controversies surrounding the shoulder charge rule was when Warriors prop Charlie Gubb was hit with a seven-week ban for a shoulder charge on Manly's Darcy Lussick in Round 19. The twist? Gubb's tackle didn't even attract a penalty during the game. Lussick later took to Twitter to defend Gubb, saying it was a "good shot from him." Although Gubb's suspension was also influenced by carry-over points from similar offences, the ban looked severe.

The NRL last year moved to ensure any player who commits a shoulder charge using force was to be automatically charged by the MRC. Head of Football Todd Greenberg said the rule change would remove ambiguity about whether a player should be charged, and that the shoulder charge was potentially dangerous.

"We cannot allow player welfare to be put at risk by shoulder charges," Greenberg said. "A player carrying the ball cannot protect himself properly against the force of a shoulder charge. We have seen this type of tackle have tragic consequences recently and the NRL has an obligation to put player safety first."

Despite fans complaining that the shoulder charge rule had 'softened' the game, there were several calls to keep the rule after Sunshine Coast Falcons player and father-of-two James Ackerman tragically passed away as a result of a shoulder charge from Brisbane's Francis Molo, who was later hit with an eight-week ban.

The ambiguity surrounding the shoulder charge rule wasn't the only issue that arose from the weekend. In the Bulldogs' 28-10 loss to South Sydney, David Klemmer threw a water bottle in the direction of Rabbitohs player Nathan Brown as the latter lined up for a conversion attempt. The bottle didn't hit anyone and Klemmer escaped a charge by the MRC, although he's expected to receive a concerning act notice. However, Souths prop George Burgess was suspended for two weeks last season for throwing a bottle at Sydney Roosters' Kane Evans, causing him to miss his side's week-one finals loss to Cronulla.

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