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Hunt should’ve been binned but wasn’t even penalised after exploiting loophole

Canberra coach Ricky Stuart has every right to tell the NRL where to stick its apology even if he does get one after his team was robbed in Wollongong on Sunday.

Fair play to St George Illawarra skipper Ben Hunt – he not only exploited the six-again loophole that means teams are rarely penalised when slowing down play while defending their goal line.

With the Raiders on the attack with 10 seconds left, Hunt could have been penalised twice but escaped any meaningful sanction as Canberra’s last-ditch raid was denied.

After Jack Bird had grounded Joseph Tapine 10 metres out from the line, Hunt jumped on the grounded Raiders prop in what was the personification of a professional foul. 

It was as deliberate as can be. Canberra were on the attack and Hunt’s actions should be a penalty at any stage of the match, on any patch of turf on the field.

WOLLONGONG, AUSTRALIA - JULY 03: Dragon players celebrate winning the round 16 NRL match between the St George Illawarra Dragons and the Canberra Raiders at WIN Stadium, on July 03, 2022, in Wollongong, Australia. (Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

Dragons players celebrate winning over the Canberra Raiders at WIN Stadium. (Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

However, referee Peter Gough’s call after Hunt flopped on top of Tapine to stall the Green Machine for another precious few seconds was to wave six-again to Canberra.

With 10 seconds left, there is precisely zero benefit to the attacking team in getting another set.

Hunt, feeling lucky after dodging one bullet, then jumped out of marker to shut down dummy-half Tom Starling before he could pass the ball wide for one last play.

To be fair on Gough, that one was a marginal call – the type that you see penalised a lot of the time and let go to a large degree as well.

Referees have been swallowing the whistle when a big call has been needed in the dying stages for more than a century.

But that does not excuse the previous play when Hunt should have been penalised and sin-binned for a professional foul in front of the posts which would have allowed Canberra to draw level at 12-12 and then have a one-player advantage for the extra time period.

They may not have won in the golden-point mayhem that should have ensued but they definitely should not have lost in extra time.

Storm star Brandon Smith, on The Matty Johns Show, gave a player’s perspective as he watched the vision later: “This is where the six-again’s not really a great asset for you, as a team but I think if you just knock the ball on, I don’t think it’s legal, but if you pretend to knock the ball on I think they get a two-point conversion.”

The NRL tweaked the six-again rule at the start of this season to empower referees to award penalties to teams who are infringed upon within their own 40-metre zone.

It has helped alleviate what we saw last year when teams would deliberately rush up in defence on a team rucking the ball out from their own end, happy to concede a six-again ruling in the knowledge that they will stymie any momentum their opponent was trying to build at the start of their set.

Not that the NRL needs more rule changes but if the six-again genie is not going to be put back in the bottle, perhaps the rulemakers – in their finite wisdom – should look at making it an automatic penalty rather than a set restart for infringements with less than a minute remaining in any period.

A set in the NRL pretty much lasts one minute so that would remove the current state of affairs in which defending teams can infringe on purpose, safe in the knowledge that the side in possession gets no actual reward from a six-again call.

And it would prevent a repeat of Sunday’s schemozzle at WIN Stadium when Hunt’s illegal tactics would have resulted in a thoroughly deserved penalty for his blatant actions.

Stuart, who has lost a small fortune in fines over the course of his two-decade coaching career, was tightlipped when asked about the incident in his post-match media conference on Sunday, choosing his words carefully.

“I’ve only seen it once (and) I only need to see it once,” a tight-lipped Stuart said. 

Xavier Savage. (Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

“Tomorrow I’ll get an apology or I’ll get justification of there not being a penalty. We set ourselves up to win that game with a really tough grind.”

His captain Elliott Whitehead was also circumspect: “I best not make a comment because it’ll come back on me,” he said. “It shouldn’t come down to that (last play), we’re a better team than that. We let ourselves down and made too many errors.”

Gough’s call, or lack there of, has massive ramifications for Canberra. They would have leapfrogged the Dragons to sit just behind Manly in ninth spot with a win but have now dropped to 11th on the ladder and are four points adrift of eighth-placed St George Illawarra.

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