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High tackle law controversy explained: What does Super League do now?

We take a closer look at why Nu Brown's red card for Hull FC was so controversial; watch every match of the 2024 Super League season, including men's, women's and wheelchair Grand Finals, on Sky Sports

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Hull FC's Nu Brown received a controversial red card for making contact with the head of Warrington's Ben Currie, which opened up a nasty cut above his eye.

Since the beginning of the 2024 Super League season, players, coaches, and fans alike have been getting to grips with the RFL's new high tackle laws. Shock then reverberated around rugby league on Friday when Nu Brown was sent off for Hull FC.

Brown was sent off for direct contact to the head due to a clash of heads with Ben Currie, the Warrington player having to leave the field after sustaining a nasty cut above his eye in the contact.

Although it seemed nothing was coming of the incident, the video referee stepped in and Brown was eventually sent off for direct contact with the head, Hull FC's third sending off of the season.

The reaction to the decision was immediate, with the general sentiment being that the decision was a further example that either the rules are too harsh or they are not being applied consistently.

So, why is Super League in confusion? Let's take a look...

What is the rule? How was it applied to Nu Brown?

When deciding the punishment for head contact, these are the steps that are followed by referred as outlined by the RFL.

First, it is asked: Was contact made with the ball carrier's head/neck on contact by the tacklers' upper or lower limb, shoulder, head or other body part?

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In the case of Brown, this will have been answered yes.

Ben Currie sustained a nasty cut above his eye after the contact
Image: Ben Currie sustained a nasty cut above his eye after the contact

If there are significant mitigating factors, it is no penalty. If it is not forceful or dangerous it is a penalty. If the player repeatedly offends or there are mitigating factors, it is a yellow. If it is forceful or dangerous, it is a red.

In Brown's case, there were no mitigating factors.

Mitigating factors include:

1. Tackler clearly bent at the waist and/or knees to make contact with ball carrier legally and ball carrier unexpectedly and rapidly loses height/changes direction (where deliberate, penalty may be reversed), and tackler unable to adjust.

2. Tackler makes a definite attempt to change height in an effort to avoid the ball carrier's head.

3. Initial contact by the tackler is reactionary and tackler immediately releases ball carrier.

4. Head contact is indirect or secondary (initial contact to body, then minor contact to ball carrier's head).

Why is there no mitigating factors you may ask? This is because the referee judged it to be forceful or dangerous contact.

A "high level of force or danger" is considered to be when "contact is made to ball carrier's head by head or shoulder of tackler".

Regardless of anything else, if a head hits a head, it is automatically considered high danger.

Therefore, by the letter of the law, the contact from Brown on Currie is a red.

The referees are only implementing what they have been told to and following the framework from which they are told to adjudicate. By following the rules, they cannot be at fault.

So, why is rugby league angry at the cards they are seeing being handed out?

Why is it controversial?

Despite the sanctioning framework being able to explain the sending off, it is seen as controversial for the sport due to the accidental nature of the contact plus how dangerous the contact seems compared to other tackles this season that have either had a red card or been sanctioned with the lesser punishment of a yellow.

For example, James Donaldson of Leeds Rhinos only saw yellow for what was a reckless swinging arm as his side took on Hull KR. If that is a yellow, then on video evidence, gut instinct would say Brown's tackle is a yellow.

The incidents across just the opening two rounds of this season have been wide-ranging and leave fans with one uniting emotion: Confusion.

Players themselves have also expressed their distaste at the rules, St Helens stalwart Alex Walmsley leading the rallying cry for the players to unite in a union to have a louder voice in the discussion of the evolution of the game.

It is clear conversations need to be had once again between the RFL and players.

Red or yellow? The big calls in 2024:

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Jon Wilkin and Jamie Jones-Buchanan discuss whether James Donaldson deserved a red card for this tackle in Hull KR's clash with Leeds Rhinos

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A debut to forget for Hull FC's Franklin Pele as he was sent off for a swinging arm which sparked a wild brawl between the two sets of players

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Liam Watts is sent off for Castleford Tigers after a direct contact tackle to the head of Tyler Dupree in their match against Wigan Warriors

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Hull KR's Matt Parcell is shown a yellow for an infringement on Ligi Sao, before the FC player is shown a red for retaliation

Existential threats and shambolic decisions: Carney and Wilkin react

Often we see fans and players react to such controversial decisions, but Sky Sports Rugby League's Jon Wilkin and Brian Carney could not hide their emotion after Brown's sending off.

For Carney, such red cards are an "existential threat" to the game, while Wilkin believes it was a "shambolic" decision.

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Sky Sports pundit Jon Wilkin was fuming with the decision to award a red card for Hull FC's Nu Brown after he made contact with the head of Warrington's Ben Currie

"We know there is a clamp down on head contact and accidental head contact will be punished. I cannot support this action in the game," said Carney on Sky Sports Rugby League.

"I am saying we have got an existential threat to the attractiveness of the game.

"In a million years, I cannot find a reason for a red card for Nu Brown in this instance.

"Obviously the Hull FC fans in the stadium here were irate when they saw that decision made.

"We have got the Warrington fans behind us here and groundstaff, stewards, all puzzled looking at the big screen at what they have just seen.

"The existential threat to the game lies in officiating like that and the decision to take the game down that route."

"That is a shambles," added Wilkin.

"Because if that is a red card, there are 10 red cards in the first half.

"We just saw Leon Hayes carry the ball and get hit in the head twice. There is a real mismatch between wanting to protect the players' welfare and reduce head contact and then really sloppy application of that.

"That is a sloppy application of the rule. What I am saying is, you have not chosen to apply that rule, James Donaldson stiff armed someone [on Thursday evening] in the head and it is a yellow card.

"Nu Brown slightly touches Ben Currie's head and it is a red card.

"We have to echo the frustrations of people who are watching. It is an absolutely mind-blowingly bad decision and it is damaging."

How did the players and coaches react?

Hull FC head coach Tony Smith: We haven't got it totally right

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Hull FC head coach Tony Smith was left in disbelief following Nu Brown's red card in their loss at Warrington Wolves

"We include everybody and we make sure we're rational about how we implement it all.

"We give people time to train, to change habits and styles they've been using for 20 years, some of these guys.

"They don't know anything else, then we're asking them to do some other stuff. We've been doing our best over pre-season, but until it gets into the heat of the moment - we're finding out people are struggling to make those adjustments, or some of them are anyway.

"You only have to look at the pitches we're playing on, it's hard to get timings right.

"I'm not sure we're getting it totally right with all that."

Warrington forward Paul Vaughan: I think the rule is great!

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Paul Vaughan was delighted after Warrington secured their first victory of the Super League season with a comprehensive 36-10 triumph over Hull FC

"I guess it's a bit hard, the new rules which have come in this year. You've sort of got to adapt to it as best you can.

"The rules in place are trying to keep the game safe, you can't make contact with the head and that's just the way it goes.

"After the first week, there were a lot of suspensions. but I think trying to make the game as safe as possible and look after the players' head, that's the main concern.

"I agree with the rules - I think it's great."

Warrington head coach Sam Burgess: I feel terrible coaching on the other side of that

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Warrington head coach Sam Burgess doesn't think Hull FC's Nu Brown should have been sent off in their 36-10 win

"From Nu's point of view, there's nothing he can do about that...but to the letter of the law, it's a red card.

"I feel terrible coaching on the other side that that's happened and no doubt it's going to happen to one of my players at some point, but you can't do anything about that.

"A common-sense approach is needed at some point, but it's extremely hard. As a coach, we try to stay in the guidelines as much as we can."

How did social media react and how do we move forward?

The reaction on social media was also intense, in a further indictment a clearer explanation is required from those in charge as to how the rules are applied and why they need to be so severe.

It is known that insurance for the sport is costly due to such head contacts and protection for the sport against players coming with lawsuits in the future.

If that is the reason, then it needs to be outlined and explained so all involved can move forward on the same page.

Sam Burgess called for a "common sense approach" following the match. The debate will rumble on and all eyes will now be on referees to see how similar tackles are dealt with...

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