16 October 2014

2014 Disciplinary Review

The disciplinary review process is something we have written about before. This piece is a review of the outcomes and some of the controversies that have been thrown up by this process during the 2014 Super League season.

We have been reviewing all the cases considered by the Match Review Panel - hereafter referred to as the Panel - and decisions made by the Operational Rules Tribunal - hereafter referred to as the Tribunal - this season that relate to Super League players (this was task enough in itself without looking through the other leagues and academy fixtures!).

Before we get started, we would note that the RFL are pretty good about being open and clear about their process and guidelines around the disciplinary - you can read all you need to know on the 'Disciplinary' section of their website including who will be on the panel and the guidelines the panel and tribunal should look to follow, they should be credited for this. Without this open resource we wouldn't be in a position to undertake this review.

In total 624 cases involving Super League players were considered by the Panel in 2014. 538 of those were in Super League regular season games, 32 were in Super League playoff series games and 54 were in Challenge Cup games.

Something we often hear about is bias - towards/against certain regions, certain clubs or certain players. In previous work I've done I've come to the conclusion that this doesn't exist (certainly on the first two counts, I've not really considered the third in detail before). However, I don't suppose the accusations will ever go away.

Table 1 below summarises the data on a team by team basis from the Super League regular season, the only place you can make any like for like comparisons as in the other competitions not all teams played the same amount of games against the same opponents. I've included the 'disciplinary' calls made in game by the officials as well as those made later by the panel and tribunal.
It isn't surprising that by and large the teams who incur the most penalties also end up with the most cases being reviewed by the panel as they will be the ones most frequently being seen to break the rules. This trend is generally followed on to the teams who get the most charges and the most bans.

The anomalies here were Castleford, who ranked low for in game offences but high in the number of games their players missed through suspensions (thanks largely to Justin 'taxi to Red Hall' Carney), and Huddersfield, who were third in penalties and joint first in cases reviewed but had the least number of games lost through suspension.

Neither of these two anomalies suggest bias of any order though to me - the RFL only tend to be biased towards Wigan or Leeds and against every supporters' own club is my general understanding from the normal guff you see on social media and message boards. The often alleged 'Yorkshire Bias' also appears to sadly not sit true as the split in the cases, charges and bans is pretty evenly split between Yorkshire and non-Yorkshire clubs.

Catalan may have some point to their suggestion that they are treated more harshly that other teams, but they do give away the most penalties and only getting around two-thirds of their possible bans maybe balances that argument a little.

Something interesting to discuss from the above table is that there were 70 charges but only 7 sendings off in the 2014 regular season. Does that indicate our match officials are too lenient in game situations? This isn't a question I intend to answer here, but one worth posing.

Could it also be argued that the Tribunal are too lenient as well? After all, they only handed out suspensions that amounted to just over half the tariff the offence gradings would allow. 35 accepted Early Guilty Pleas contributed, but only 11 charges all season have resulted in the maximum possible ban. Do the match officials and the tribunal go too easily on offenders? The numbers seem to suggest they do.

Table 2 below breaks cases down by the type of incident being considered. This table includes data on all cases from all competitions.
The most checked over incidents were for possible dangerous contact offences, making up around a third of all panel cases, but only leading to 19 charges.

High tackles were the next most looked at, although only 6% of these were seen to not be penalty sufficient or less, yet where there was a charge it tended to be at the higher end of the scale. Similar results can be seen for dangerous throw offences, an area that has been under particular scrutiny in 2014 after the Alex McKinnon tragic accident in the NRL.

Of the most commonly occurring offences, striking offences most often resulted in charges. Many of these related to punching or fighting so would be fairly clear cut charges you would think.

Interestingly the highest punished offences were those directly on match officials. Only two such cases were seen - a negative that there were even that many in my eyes - and both saw charges. 91% of the possible game suspensions were levied from these charges.

Another interesting observation is that only two charges resulted from incidents considered from playoff games, both of which were from the Grand Final, if you weren't aware!

Data errors
This may sound like a small insignificant matter, but one thing that really struck me looking over the data is how poorly it is compiled.

Without looking too closely I was still able to find 33 different errors and inconsistencies in the recording of the disciplinary cases that actually affected the records of almost a quarter of all cases.

The mistakes ranged from mis-spelling club and player names to duplicating case reference numbers and not providing details on cases.

Now hopefully the online records aren't fully reflective of the RFL records of the hearings. If they are, the records that the RFL might use to look for previous offences are seriously flawed for some teams and players. (If anyone at the RFL reads this and wants a full list of the errors we found then get in touch)

DVD inconclusive
One of my biggest gripes with this process is cases where the panel make no referral on the grounds that the DVD footage of the incident is inconclusive, usually to the nature or point of contact.

I'm not for saying that if the DVD doesn't prove innocence then charge them, but I do feel that if there is any doubt from what has been seen that they aren't truly innocent of an offence then a caution should be issued and then next time around the same player for the same type of offence isn't awarded such benefit of the doubt.

I do think it is quite remarkable that in the 624 cases reviewed the panel felt they could make a confident call either way on roughly 95% of them, only citing DVD footage as being inconclusive in 35 cases.

Only three of those inconclusive cases resulted in a caution being issued. This inconsistency is something we will move on to as we look at the approach taken in individual and similar cases.

Now we turn to something I've never really written about before - consistency between individual cases.

With video footage sometimes being hard to come by it can be hard to do this but I will try my best to put something sensible and rational together (red card offences and fights tend to be a bit easier to find video of on YouTube - although we should all get to see the footage of every case reviewed on the RFL website in my opinion!).

I will first comment on some specific instances or similar offences where I would question the outcome. I will then move on to some of the cases people have flagged to us that they were unhappy about.
Scott Grix - Grade B but no ban
I'll start with one that makes no sense to me whatsoever. Scott Grix was charged with a Grade B offence of kicking out at his opponent (light contact with the opponent's head - Case ON/137/14) which normally carries a 1 to 2 game ban if found guilty at the tribunal. Grix was found guilty and fined the standard £300 but received no ban, on account of a guilty plea, showing remorse to his opponent and having a good record.

Normally you would expect that these mitigating factors would help reduce the ban to the lower end of the normal range, so it is surprising that they mitigated the entire ban. What makes it most surprising for me is that Scott Grix had been formally cautioned for a similar offence only a year earlier (Case ON/49/13). How that transpires to him having a good record is beyond me. A player with a relatively recent history of the same offence should not get such benefit of their record being clean in my opinion.

The tribunal were aware of this previous offence and still chose to go outside the recommended range, which I feel is inconsistent with other charges. There have been some Grade B guilty offences where no ban was handed out for similar reasons, but in those cases there was no recent caution (James Roby ON/484/14). If I were players like Michael Lawrence (ON/136/14), Chev Walker (ON/135/14) or Taulima Tautai (ON/755/14) found guilty of other Grade B offences with similar mitigating circumstance and no previous caution for the same offence as charged then I would feel a little aggrieved that I wasn't treated with the same leniency Scott Grix was given.
Gareth Ellis - Shoulder charge grading
The next case I've identified is simply one where I think a better explanation of the grading given would help fans and observers understand the distinctions made by the panel when assessing incidents. The case in question involves Gareth Ellis (ON/185/14). It was a Grade C shoulder charger for which the player accepted a 2 match ban by submitting an early guilty plea.

My question is over the description though. The case file says "Shoulder Charge - Indirect or secondary contact with the head of an attacking player", which under the guidelines could be an B-D graded offence. However, there have been six cases that the panel charged players with shoulder charge offences, two Grade B and four Grade C.

In the Grade B cases the players were noted to have made secondary or indirect head contact, just like Ellis. In all the other Grade C charges direct head contact was noted. That would indicate to me that Ellis' offence should have been a Grade B so he served a longer ban than he should have. For this type of thing, where the grading is different to other similarly described offences, it would be good to get an explanation why the more severe grading was applied.
Ben Westwood - Dangerous throw inconsistencies
The next one to consider is a dangerous throw offence made by Ben Westwood (ON/404/14), charged with a Grade D offence and receiving a 3 match ban (the lower end of the normal range). Really, its fairer to say that this is about the wider treatment of dangerous throw offences and Westwood's case is just the one that brought something to my attention.

As noted earlier in this piece, the dangerous throw has been an area of particular focus since the horrible career-ending Alex McKinnon injury in the NRL in March. However, there were still only ten charges and nine cautions in the 79 dangerous throw incidents reviewed.

Now, I'm not the first or only person to question the RFL disciplinary process over this type of tackle this season - the different treatment of Justin Poore (ON/200/14) compared to that of a group of Widnes players (ON/177/14, ON/180/14, ON/181/14) for a similar offence on the same weekend brought much discussion on this back in March for example. When you review the videos of the incidents, it's hard to disagree, and I can't improve on what was already said on these tackles.

The thing that interested me about Westwood's case is the note from the tribunal that the rule states that it is not how an opponent lands but what is the likely outcome given the technique used that constitutes a dangerous throw. This was in response to Warrington's not guilty plea, arguing that as the player (Scott Anderson) landed on his back and not his head or neck then it doesn't meet the definition of a dangerous lift. The tribunal were in fact correct and Karl Fitzpatrick, on behalf of Warrington and Westwood, was incorrect - the rules say that a dangerous throw occurs when the player is put in a position where the likely first part to hit the floor is the head or the neck ('the dangerous position'), so the point of landing doesn't matter as long as the likelihood of the head or the neck being that in the lift occurs.

Whilst the tribunal were in this case correct, you can understand Warrington's confusion given that in the write up for the Justin Poore case states "A dangerous throw requires contact with the ground by the head or neck of the opponent" - it doesn't, they just need to be the likely landing point during the tackle/lift/throw.

The bigger question the point made in the Westwood case raises though, is why so many cases were looked at with no charge, with a specific note in the case details being made to the player landing safely or the tackle ending safely. All but one (and I'll get to that one!) of the cases looked at by the panel where no charge or caution was issued mentioned how the player landed safely. However, if the outcome is not that significant to the tribunal, should more charges have been made by the panel? Should at least more cautions be issued? Or should Westwood have been served with a lower grade of offence? All pertinent questions that I feel this case raises for the disciplinary to answer.

Back first to the three Widnes players, who were only given a caution for their dangerous lift where all three contributed in different ways. Four of the Grade B charges we saw this year for this offence included a note that the other tackler's actions were part of the problem, so I don't understand why these three Widnes players didn't get treated the same way as the other four players charged in similar circumstances.

Now, that one case where no action was taken but the safe landing of the opponent wasn't mentioned. It was Liam Sutcliffe of Leeds (ON/679/14) and the panel decided that there was no lifting motion but the head did hit the floor. In this case I would have thought player safety aspect of a tackle that resulted in the head landing on the ground should have been a factor that although no lift was used should still warrant some sort of caution anyway as the result was clearly unsafe.

My view is I wouldn't have any issue with more charges being made on this type of offence, even ones that involve players from the team I support. For example, Dom Crosby only received a caution after Magic Weekend (ON/380/14) for an incident that had the following description: "Dangerous Throw – Other tackler’s actions part of the problem. Player does lift leg of opponent beyond the horizontal however player lands safely on upper back". I don't think landing on the upper back is at all safe and I think the description should be extended to include upper back risk as well as head and neck.

When charges have been made, bans have been fairly severe and grading for such offences reflects the potential for serious injury. I think its time we started taking them even more seriously. Bad accidents happen in Rugby League, but there is no need to lift a player over the horizontal and put them in a position that just makes them more likely.
Macgraff Leuluai - Contact to the head and duty of care
This incident is more recent than some discussed here, so will be fresher in readers mind. Now, I admit, I felt a red card for this incident would have been harsh at the time, although I now am of the mind that a ban may have been appropriate on the grounds of the duty of care a defending player has to the attacker, particularly our skillful ball-playing attackers like fullbacks and half-backs who really we pay to watch entertain us with their skills.

Leuluai was assessed for a high tackle (ON/804/14), rather than a shoulder charge as some on social media felt it should be classified. I agree it wasn't a shoulder charge, there was no rotation of the body and arms were not tucked by Leuluai's side. There was however contact to the head as part of a normal tackle motion, so high tackle to me is reasonable. Indeed, the description of the incident says: "Player makes legitimate attempt to tackle and makes contact direct to the head of opponent". In an apparent explanation of why there was no charge it goes on to say: "however opponent is dipping while trying to re-gather ball".

Immediately I thought of a comparison to a similarly recent red card offence for St Helens' Alex Walmsley (ON/782/14). Originally seen as a Grade C shoulder charge by the panel, the tribunal regraded the offence as a Grade B careless high tackle, Walmsley getting a 1 match ban. The reasoning for the decision noted the following: "The tackling player has a duty of care towards the opponent and has to be aware of all the circumstances". On reflection of this it would be my view that Leuluai would have the same duty of care to a dipping player as Walmsley had to a shorter player (St Helens' defence, that the tribunal and indeed most people, would not accept).

If this incident had been charged in the guidelines of a Grade A or B 'careless high tackle - ball carrier dips' I don't think there would have been too many complaints, especially with the aggravating factor of potential for serious injury that was a factor in the tribunal's decision on Walmsley - an incident where in fact less injury resulted than the Leuluai one.

Whilst talking about high tackles I would talk about another couple of cases where I think there is some inconsistency. Before I go on, I will state that this is not based on bias, let the charge details speak for themselves:
Case ON/174/14: "Rule – 15.1(b) Detail – Reckless – tried to tackle but reckless about outcome Grade - B"
Case ON/108/14: "Rule – 15.1(b) Detail – Reckless – tried to tackle but reckless about outcome Grade - C"

They look pretty similar don't they, apart from the grading. The first one is Jon Wilkin of St Helens. The second is Michael McIlorum of Wigan. My contention isn't with the three match ban for McIlorum (hence why I say no bias), the aggravating factor of the injury caused, combined with his poor historic record meant it was merited. But why was Wilkin's graded differently is my contention. From the descriptions of the events I don't understand the different grades so feel it's reasonable to suggest inconsistency here:
Wilkin: "The Panel reviewed an incident which occurred in approximately the 5th minute of the above Match. In the Panel’s opinion in attempting to tackle your opponent (Riley) you were reckless about the outcome and made contact with the head of your opponent. The Panel believed that your actions were unnecessary and had the potential to cause your opponent injury."
McIlorum: "The Panel reviewed an incident which occurred in approximately the 10th minute of the above Match. In the Panel’s opinion in attempting to tackle your opponent (Dixon) you were reckless about the outcome and made contact with the head of your opponent. The Panel believed that you had the full body of your opponent to aim at and that your actions had the potential to cause your opponent injury"

One final point on high tackles. A lot appear to get no charge because either the tackler is reaching, light contact is made or initial contact is with another part of the body or ball before the head. This to me is fair enough on review and its good that a tough stance is at least being taken on head contact almost always earning a penalty (unless unfortunately missed by the officials) - it is a key player safety concern to limit head contact - but in a fast physical contact sport accidental head contact can happen and it isn't right to punish that with bans every time.

An issue I have though is the complete lack of cautions being issued. Now, innocent accidental contact happens and I'm not saying caution every player guilty of head contact, but where a player is regularly committing penalties of this nature and having cases reviewed they should get some formal caution. Where a player is a serial high tackle offender (say three or more cases reviewed in the same season) then it might be appropriate for some formal caution or warning to be put on their record to help encourage them to keep their tackles down and opponents safe - meaning that if they were ever to be charged they wouldn't have a clean disciplinary record for this type of incident. Under this scheme high tackle cautions this season would be sent to Adrian Morley (Salford), Eddy Pettybourne (Wigan), Paddy Flynn (Widnes), Roy Asotasi (Warrington), Sia Soliola (St Helens) and Weller Hauraki (Castleford).
Tommy Lee & Willie Isa - Two charges from the same game
On two occasions in 2014 a player was charged twice in the same game, and both times I'm not certain the outcome was fair.

For Tommy Lee (ON/611/14 & ON/613/14) his first offence was a Grade B shoulder charge for which he was offered and accepted an early guilty plea (EGP), one match ban. His second offence was one-on-one punching Grade A, for which he got no ban but the standard £300 fine. No other players are fined for accepting a charge on an EGP so the single fine is fair. Its also reasonable that he may not have had a ban from a Grade A offence, but in the notes it seems to suggest that part of the reason for this is the ban from the EGP offence:
"It is also noted that the player has already been punished with a one-match suspension for the previous offence. All things considered, the Tribunal feels that no further suspension is required"
To me, it isn't right that a ban for a separate incident (although one did cause the other) is taken as a reason not to ban a player for a second offence. If the incidents took place in different games then this wouldn't be the outcome, so it shouldn't be for incidents in the same game surely?

For Willie Isa (ON/675/14 & ON/676/14) both offences were for different grades of dangerous contact and both earned him a ban, a total of 3 games. However, the tribunal only issued a single fine of £300 on the first offence and no fine for the second offence. There is no explanation why a second fine for the second offence isn't warranted. Again, if the two offences happened in two different games this wouldn't be that outcome so I can't see it is fair as an outcome when two offences occur in the same game.
Matt Diskin & others - Dangerous contact cautions
My question here would be why cautions were issued in a number of cases where the case details were very similar to other cases where no cautions were issued - or more so, its why cautions were not issued for these other similar cases?

This is clearly an area of particular scrutiny and impetus for the disciplinary. Table 2 above shows it was the most looked at type of incident all season long. Correspondingly (though not proportionately) it resulted in the most cautions and charges as well as the most suspensions imposed. So why the inconsistency in the use of the caution?

Matt Diskin's case (ON/428/14) is given particular note as it was one of twelve dangerous contact cases where my old friend DVD inconclusive featured in the details. I can't understand why, with this type of incident getting particular emphasis from the panel and the tribunal, it was the only one of the twelve DVD inconclusive cases to receive a caution.

Here is a selection of the case details from some of the twelve cases:
Matt Diskin (only one cautioned) - "Player does take hold of arm of opponent however DVD inconclusive as to pressure applied."
George Griffin (ON/529/14) - "Player gets opponent into crusher position however does not regrip and is retreating whilst making tackle. DVD inconclusive as to amount and nature of pressure applied"
Harrison Hansen (ON/651/14) - "Player does make direct contact with supporting leg of opponent however DVD inconclusive as to point of contact."
Paul Aiton (ON/196/14) - "Player does make some contact with the arm of opponent however DVD inconclusive as to exact nature of contact."
Setaimata Sa (ON/533/14) - "Player Makes hold on opponent's leg however DVD inconclusive as to amount of pressure applied"
Tommy Lee (ON/164/14) - "Does take hold of opponent around the neck area and maintains grip. DVD inconclusive as to the nature of contact as the tackle ends."
Vincent Duport (ON/734/14) - "Player gets opponent into crusher opposition however player attempts to make room for opponent and DVD inconclusive as to force applied."
William Barthau (ON/095/14) - "Arm is taken and held but DVD inconclusive regarding the level and nature of any force."

Can anyone explain the difference that earned Matt Diskin a formal caution over his technique but not the others? I'm struggling to understand why. I know a caution isn't a ban and we've seen they can be disregarded a little when making a decision but at the same time this is an important area of emphasis for player safety and cases are being handled differently, quite clearly. It isn't just the DVD inconclusive cases, there are a number of similar case details for incidents that did not result in any action at all where other incidents that appear to have the same basis earned at minimum a caution. If this is a point of emphasis and concern then all tackle techniques that present any risk of injury should result in cautions.

Alternatively, the same approach as suggested for high tackles could be taken (caution issued after three or more similar cases seen in the same season). 22 players could have potentially have received such cautions in 2014, making them more aware of their technique in time for 2015.
Jamie Peacock - no ban for guilty Grade B offence
Similar to the Scott Grix offence discussed earlier, Jamie Peacock was charged with a Grade B offence (punching - ON/471/14) but received no ban. The major factor in getting no ban was that he has a good record of playing over 500 games and had never had a disciplinary tribunal appearance before this one.

I don't want to appear to be getting at Jamie Peacock here, he has been a great servant to our game and does have a good record. However, I feel his record should not be regarded as being as untarnished as the tribunal felt. Its true that he has never faced the tribunal, but when in game discipline is considered he record is not as clean.

Two cases have been reviewed where it was deemed by the panel that the in match sin-bin he received were sufficient punishment so no referral to the tribunal was needed. One was only the season before this new incident (ON/159/13) and the other, though some time ago, was for the same type of offence he was in front of the tribunal for this year, punching (ON/05/09). Two other instances on record didn't reach the tribunal because the DVD footage the panel had wasn't conclusive enough to draw a charge.

In my view this information, particularly the 2009 punching incident, should have meant his good record credit saw the minimum guideline ban of 1 game apply, rather than the tribunal go outside this with a 0 game ban.

Your cases
As well as me having my tuppence worth on these matters, we've been asking you our listeners and Twitter followers to get in touch with cases you feel were questionable throughout the 2014 season. Before I go through the ones we got, I must say I really enjoyed looking these up and would welcome more of the same - any you send in I will add as we go.
Paul (Warrington fan) @paulw1908 - McIlorum on Laithwaite and Leuluai on Russell, blatant attacks on our players and nothing done about them. Josh Jones on Joel Monaghan is another one - it was a late high shot while Joel was on the floor, we got a penalty but nothing else was done.
I've covered the Leuluai-Russell incident above and agree there is some inconsistency/injustice in that one.

The McIlorum-Laithwaite decision was noted as 'Striking' in the case record (ON/791/14) although reads to me more like it should have been noted as 'Late tackle' so I've looked over the records for both offence types. In this situation the details on the records for similar cases suggest the error was on part of the match official not awarding a penalty, but the disciplinary panel view was consistent with other cases - where there is a late tackle but no contact to the head and no illegal shoulder charge then there has been no charge or ban handed out:
McIlorum - "Player makes late contact with opponent however does not use illegal Shoulder Charge. No contact with the head. Worthy of on field penalty."
Jeff Lima (ON/507/14) - "Tackle is late, however is no contact with head. Worthy of on field penalty."
Sia Soliola (ON/242/14) - "Not an illegal Shoulder Charge. Tackle is marginally late however no contact with the head."
Willie Isa (ON/066/14) - "Player does make attempt to make a tackle however attempt is very late. Player does not use illegal shoulder charge and there is no contact with the head. Penalty sufficient."
Willie Manu (ON/528/14) - "Tackle is late but no contact with head. Penalty sufficient."
Shaun Lunt (ON/723/14) - "Tackle is marginally late however contact is across chest"

Whilst it was a big shame that injury was suffered following the late hit, and its clear a penalty could well have been awarded for the late hit, the panel would see head contact as the main issue when thinking whether or not to charge the player and as that wasn't a part of the tackle I think the call was at least consistent with all the similar incidents that were reviewed. I suppose the question mark may be, given the injury suffered to the head when Laithwaite hit the floor (and not because of the point of the tackle), should there be more emphasis and crack down on late hits that have the potential to indirectly cause injury for 2015 and beyond if a player safety issue is being highlighted?

The Jones on Monaghan incident (ON/758/14) isn't one I remember and isn't the type of incident you would easily find footage of, so I'm limited in being able to compare it with other cases. Based on the case record it was considered as possible striking but the Panel decided it was a legitimate tackle attempt and a penalty for the high tackle element was sufficient.

Based on Paul's recollections I can only off the top of my head think of one similar offence, where there was head contact in a tackle on a player on the floor. That was Benjamin Garcia on Sam Powell (ON/589/14) where he hit him on the floor during a fiery period in the game and was sin-binned following a team warning being issued. The case details were slightly different in that they decided it was a swinging arm by Garcia, not a legitimate tackle attempt, but they couldn't conclude head contact like they did in Jones' case.

With the lack of further examples of similar I'm struggling to say how consistent the panel dealt with the Jones case. It reads as being fair based on how high tackles are treated, although as I've said above I feel it might be time to be tougher on these offences.
Mark (Leeds fan) @markstevo72 - Bowen high tackle, late hit on Aiton v Saints, Carvell tackle when he ended up in a neck brace, Moon getting two games but Walmsley only one.
A few good ones to go at so thanks for these Mark.

I assume the Bowen incident referred to is the one in the season opener where Wigan hosted Huddersfield (ON/020/14). One thing to note on this one is the details of the case are as long as any details for a no charge outcome, maybe they just had more time on their hands early doors. I've copied the details out below with some key words highlighted:
"Late tackle on opponent after opponent has kicked the ball. Defender maintains contact with floor with one foot and does not jump in to contact. Initial contact is with shoulder which then causes the arm to slide up under the chin of the attacker. Defender has open hand throughout the tackle. Penalty sufficient."

Not excusing this bad tackle, which was fully worthy of the on field penalty and given it was also arguably so late it was off the ball I wouldn't have argued against a harsher in game punishment. However, I think the panel who have longer to look over the incident made a consistent call based on their assessment of it. 23 high tackle offences scrutinised mention initial contact being off or around the attacking player's shoulder being a factor in a penalty being sufficient and no charge being made, so that is consistent. There are also four other cases that make specific reference to the tackler having an open hand, all of which resulted in no charge being made. So again, on that basis its reasonable to suggest consistency here.

(Note: I accept it could be argued there was very minimal shoulder contact as the arm rose, but then there was no direct head contact either - a red card with Grade A charge and no additional ban may have been a fairer call. Further note: the game Bowen would have missed, the World Club Challenge, has been widely regarded by Wigan fans as Bowen's worst game this year!)

The Carvell case referred to was a tackle on him by Wakefield's Chris Annakin (ON/756/14). The tackle caused Carvell to leave the game and he went to hospital experiencing pin and needles, where whilst in care he tweeted a picture of himself wearing a neck brace. It was an incident I remembered the fall out from (a League Express journalist was criticised for making it his top tackle in that game) but I couldn't recall the actual tackle - so I found it on YouTube.

The details note that "Player lifts legs of opponent above the horizontal however opponent lands on his side.". Carvell does indeed land on his side.

However, at the point of this still-shot I would refer back to the rules noted earlier - a dangerous throw occurs when the player is put in a position where the likely first part to hit the floor is the head or the neck. At this point there is a clear lift and there has to be a definite player safety concern from the position Carvell in placed in. When the video rolls on the lift actually becomes more pronounced with both legs going over the horizontal, but as Carvell has released the ball he is also able to put an arm down to help break his fall to the floor in the end.

I'm surprised there was no charge, although you could probably freeze-frame a number of similar cases and come to the same conclusion so in that way maybe it isn't inconsistent, unfortunately. If there had been a charge then Annakin would have seen a second ban of the season for this type of offence. In fact, he had a ban in 2012, a caution in 2013 and a 5 game ban in 2014, so Annakin does have to take a serious look at his technique one would reckon.

The Joel Moon (ON/724/14 - video) and Alex Walmsley question Mark raised (ON/782/14 - video), simply based on the case records, is an easy one to answer - the tribunal agreed with the panel that Moon's was a shoulder charge with direct head contact (a charge to which Moon pleaded guilty and the Leeds club and coach conceded was an illegal tackle though out of character), but the tribunal decided Walmsley's was a careless high tackle and not a shoulder charge - it was clear the arms were out in an attempt to wrap the attacker up and there was no rotation of the body, unlike Moon's case where he led with the shoulder.

The guidelines say any shoulder charge with direct initial contact to the head is a minimum Grade C offence, so based on that and the fact that Joel Moon did make direct contact to the head with a shoulder charge means he was given the right grade and the lowest punishment in the guidelines based on all considerations.

The guidelines also say a careless high tackle should be graded A-B, so in that respect Walmsley was given the higher grade for the offence the tribunal found him guilty of and based on mitigating factors got the minimum ban for that grading.

On the face of it the guidelines were followed so the decisions were fair and consistent. Certainly it seems reasonable in hindsight that they were judged as different offences - shoulder charge and high tackle respectively - so that is why they were assessed differently. However, I would question why it was seen as careless and not reckless on the part of Alex Walmsley.

The 'Careless' descriptions are:
A-B Careless – flat hand off balance
A-B Careless - Ball carrier dips
A-B Careless - Stepped and reaching
A-B Careless – initial contact with ball or chest
A-B Careless – second tackler in – wrapping tackle up

The reckless ones are:
B-C Reckless – tackler in control
B-C Reckless – tried to tackle but reckless about outcome

Surely the highlighted one would best describe this offence more than any of the careless ones. The outcome could still have been Grade B and 1 match ban, it just would have seemed more in line with the guidelines that way to me. It does seem strange that the outcome of the cases was different when effectively the danger to the opponents safety was the same in both, but I suppose key is Moon used an illegal technique whereas Walmsley poorly executed a legal technique.

Thanks for those ones Mark, really enjoyed looking in to those case. Unfortunately it doesn't look like any late hit on Paul Aiton was considered by the Match Review Panel so it falls out of scope for discussion here.
Paul (Widnes fan) @pob1976 - Incident between Paddy Flynn and Justin Carney at Castleford. Flynn EGP, 2 match ban. Carney no EGP due to previous record, 2 match ban..
I think an important thing to mention on this case is the availability of the EGP doesn't necessarily mean you deserve a lesser ban than other players charged with the same offence.

Paddy Flynn (ON/403/14) accepted the EGP, effectively accepting guilt for the Grade C charge without having to face the tribunal which would also incur a £300 fine for him to pay. Justin Carney (ON/402/14) also accepted guilt for the Grade C offence, but he didn't have the opportunity to bypass the tribunal hearing that brings with it a £300 fine.

So in effect Carney was treated the same as Flynn in getting a 2 match ban after accepting guilt. The lack of an EGP for Carney shouldn't automatically mean his admission of guilt isn't treated in the same way as Flynn's in my view. It was also noted that Flynn was the aggressor and the instigator of the fight - he caught Carney high a couple of times then nudged him in the face at the play of the ball and although Carney landed the first proper punch, Flynn had his fists up first. That mitigated things for Carney too.

The surprise to me was his previous record of two bans for similar punching offences in the previous 15 months, plus a formal warning over future conduct weren't taken as aggravating factors that meant he got the maximum ban. This of course has nothing to do with the Flynn incident, but is what I would have expected when other cases saw the tribunal report poor previous record as a factor in awarding maximum bans for gradings applied - 6 out of 10 cases in 2014 where a maximum ban was imposed noted previous poor records as a factor in the decision, including a subsequent case involving Carney. On that basis at least you might suggest some inconsistency on the part of the disciplinary committee.
Phil (Wakefield fan) @winitycats - What about the two match ban for Dean Collis earlier in the year for nothing at all.
We went to the game Dean Collis earned this charge from (ON/036/14) but were a little away from the tackle, which I do remember caused Lee Gaskell a fairly serious knee ligament injury, so I looked it up and got this screen grab from some YouTube footage.

Collis was charged for dangerous contact and this picture does suggest he has attacked Gaskell around the knee as the third man in to the tackle.

I wouldn't think Collis intended to injure Gaskell but the charge was for a breach of Rule 15.1(i) - "A defending player, in effecting a tackle, makes dangerous contact (either direct or indirect) with the supporting leg or legs of an attacking player who has been held in the tackle and who is deemed to be in a vulnerable position, in a way that involves an unacceptable risk of injury to that player. Grade - C".

I think the picture suggests the charge was met and it is worth noting Collis was offered and accepted an EGP for the charge, which resulted in injury as noted. On the basis of injury being caused and guilt being accepted and not challenged by Collis or Wakefield I think its hard to say there was nothing in it.

What has to be questioned though was whether Collis was treated consistently with others? A number of others charges for the same offence were made in 2014 after it was agreed there would be renewed focus on this type of tackle for this season. The only one I could find a shot of was this Steve Rapira one that brought only a Grade B charge (ON/126/14 - EGP offered and accepted). Thankfully Alex Gerrard wasn't injured. My opinion, both should have had a charge but should also have had the same grade as each other. Possibly some inconsistency here.
Luke (Castleford) @lukedorn - I can think of one other...
I can only imagine our friend Luke from Castleford is referring to an incident he was intimately involved in. In fact, I'm surprised no one else brought it up given the outrage that stirred around it at the time - Kevin Sinfield's red card and subsequent two game ban for a head butt (ON/617/14).

In reality, this wasn't that controversial. Based on the guidelines a full contact head butt is a Grade C offence. With his good record Sinfield was afforded an EGP, which he accepted for the two match ban any other player in the same circumstances would have been given.

I can't see anything other than this being a correct and consistent decision by the Panel given the guidelines they have to follow. Gary Hetherington, Leeds Chief Exec, disagreed: "“Unfortunately this is another example of the pattern of inconsistency displayed by the Review Panel of the RFL,” he said. “Earlier this year, Hull KR’s Kris Welham was charged with an unprovoked head-butt and received a Grade A charge and no suspension."

Welham's butt (ON/086/14) was also on Luke Dorn (what is it about his face?) but was deemed to be light contact by the panel. The video shows it more on the side of Dorn's head so it wasn't full contact, that much is clear. The guidelines for this would be Grade A-B, so again they went with the guidelines on this case, which was clearly different from the Sinfield one.
Ben Flower and Lance Hohaia - striking
I thought that all but finalising some of the numbers this piece was written. I was happy with that. Then it all kicked off at Old Trafford and one final re-write was needed. Its an incident that has been covered at great length and across all media, so I'll try to not dwell on it too much here, and I don't intend to include the footage or images, we've seen it enough.

Lance Hohaia's forearm strike (ON/830/14) on Ben Flower was bad, but not something we don't occasionally see the like of in a game of rugby league, he had been a little roughed up on the kick chase and he reacted, initiating the major flare up. There was direct head contact, he ran in from a distance, and whilst there was some provocation from Flower on the kick chase it didn't warrant the reaction in my view. I personally don't feel the Panel followed the grading guidelines by giving a Grade B charge. The Grade B forearm/elbow striking offences don't tally with Hohaia's actions as well as "Strikes with elbow off ball reckless" that could be Grade C-E. I would have charged Hohaia with a C. He had the option of an EGP and that would have meant a 2 game ban. I'm not sure if the Panel were influenced by other factors here but it shouldn't slip under the radar completely that they appear to have gone off guidelines in this call. I would not have questioned it if a Tribunal had been held and they felt there were enough mitigating factors to lower the tariff as we have seen that happen before and can be reasonably explained.

Ben Flower's first punch wasn't nice, but again isn't something we never see on a rugby league field and was arguably warranted as a reaction to the striking attack on him. If it was that incident in isolation the guideline descriptions for some Grade A or B offences could have been reasonable: "Reaction to opponent – lashing out" or "Punching – self defence" maybe. But sadly for all involved in rugby league, it didn't end there (ON/831/14).

That second punch on a prone Lance Hohaia unable to defend himself was landed. Its an image I don't want to see again. It was as bad as anything I have seen watching a Super League game and it was awarded the largest ban handed out in the Super League era for an on field offence. Grade F means a minimum of 8 games and the maximum is open ended as the tribunal can apply a period suspension.

The key wording from the report is this section: "This was a flagship game watched by a large audience. The player lost his temper and delivered two blows. The second blow was whilst the opponent was defenceless on the ground. The player can be seen to pin the opponent to the ground and then deliver the second blow. This had the potential for serious injury. On this occasion serious injury did not follow although the opponent did not return to the field of play. The reality of the situation is the actions of this player was malicious and intentional and in the opinion of this Tribunal have been graded correctly at Grade F the most serious grading."

The profile of the event and the wider impact this has had on the view of the sport are in my view would be legitimate aggravating factors to this ban. The outcome was 6 months, which means 13 games, including the World Club Series and 10 Super League fixtures. It should also see him come back after the first Wigan-Saints derby of 2015, a sensible call in my view. As I feel it was as bad as I've seen and has as big a ban as has been given, I'm off the position that the Flower decision, essentially for that second punch, was reasonable. It is hard to compare if it is consistent because I have not seen a player pin down and hit an unconscious opponent before in the RFL data considered (or from what I could recall from watching the sport).

I am surprised no one else was charged. Even the match officials in the #AskTheRefs session after the game stated that Paul Wellens punched Ben Flower and I'm sure those reviewing the match could have found others from both sides possibly offending and at least deserving further scrutiny if not charges.

I must say I'm very disappointed to have had to end on such an emotive, recent and divisive incident that in truth I feel we should just move on from. There are a very wide range of views on this incident that I've read and I'm sure many others that I haven't read. I suppose all I can say to reflect my own view is the clubs involved have both supported the outcome. Its a tough one to talk about, and one I hope we won't see enough cases like in future to even establish if they dealt with it consistently, because that would mean more negative images we don't want to see.

So what conclusions have I drawn and what do I think should change. Firstly, I think the record keeping is poor and when some cases might depend on it or observers views are informed by it then it needs to be better, and with the records should be included footage of the incident considered - especially where a charge is made.

I don't think there is any compelling evidence of systemic bias. In general, the players who have bad records get bigger bans regardless of the club they play for. Incidents that are obviously bad or have caused significant injury or damage are more likely to attract the highest gradings and longest bans, regardless of who the player is or who they play for. Very few appeals are made which indicates the clubs must have some level of support in the system despite a number of public criticisms from representatives of the clubs.

There is an element of inconsistency seen in some of the decisions and there is also an element of inconsistency between the different offences that can have a similar end result getting viewed more differently than this warrants - I'm talking really about potential for head injury with shoulder charges being apparently graded on a different scale to high or dangerous tackles.

There should be more warnings and more longer suspensions in my view. We need to take more seriously those incidents with serious potential to injure a player or harm the sport in a wider context. 79 charges only resulted in 117 games missed through suspension and only 11 cases resulted in the full possible punishment being handed out. The process needs to take more cases as seriously as it took Ben Flower's case. That is not to compare all cases to Ben Flower's case or suggest more Grade F charges should have been handed out, but it is to say that stronger stances need to be taken across the piece to make the process more robust.

I think a greater level of identification of how the Panel have followed the guidelines in their charges, and why the Tribunal may have or may not have followed the normal range of punishment, would help clear things up for clubs and supporters, if not always appease them.

I also think there should be (if there is not already) a monthly disciplinary forum where all those involved with the process meet with the coaches, chairmen and players union representatives to get together and discuss cases where there may be some uncertainty or question marks. Some formal structure and governance to these meetings would be needed so it isn't just a case of clubs bringing their own bans to the table and trying to get a backtrack from the RFL - they have the appeals process for this. This would be for the RFL Compliance Department to draw up I suppose.

It is an interesting process with lots to consider and I have by and large enjoyed writing this essay, because that's what it has become. I've come away feeling the process has holes but not feeling it should be torn up and started again. The RFL need to make a number of things more robust, more definite and easier to understand for the disgruntled fan, but they do have an idea of a system that with some tightening up I would feel will truly be fit for purpose.

I know this has been a long one but thanks for reading and I hope you found it worthwhile. Don't forget to stay in touch with us on Facebook and Twitter and keep up with our latest shows by following on Spreaker or subscribing on iTunes - all the links you need are in the sidebar.

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