RL Weekly: Paul Wellens, John Asiata And The Tackling Timebomb

The St Helens coach did not hold back this week after some controversial injuries
12:00, 27 Jul 2023

“The bloke is out of control. The governing body has failed in its duty to protect its players.” Paul Wellens always thinks before he speaks, which makes his furious shot at Leigh Leopards forward John Asiata and the RFL this week all the more remarkable.

The well-mannered St Helens boss is incandescent after losing key forwards Agnatius Paasi and Alex Walmsley for the rest of the season, both following tackles by Asiata in the Leopards' Betfred Challenge Cup semi-final win. Less severe injuries to fellow forwards Morgan Knowles and Louis McCarthy-Scarsbrook also followed tackles by Asiata.

His eyes piercing with rage, Wellens delivered a carefully prepared message to the assembled media. “This isn’t an emotional response to losing a cup game,” he said. In truth it absolutely was, but that is not to say the legendary full-back doesn’t have a point, nor should it deflect from the Leopards’ stunning win to reach Wembley.

But Wellens’ comments have tossed a huge grenade into the discussion for the final third of the season, and Asiata can now guarantee himself a marked man.


The RFL has defended its disciplinary process - which chose not to charge Asiata with any offence - and insist its approach to reviewing incidents remains “consistent” despite allegations from Wellens that the decision not to charge Asiata was taken before it had received scan reports for the injured Saints players. Severity of injury can be a factor in deciding a disciplinary punishment against a player. Wellens claimed his club had provided detailed medical reports to the RFL, but they were not seen by the disciplinary panel who cleared Asiata.

The RFL has since assured clubs it “will consult, consider and decide whether this type of tackle or technique is acceptable in our sport.” And here-in lies the crux. It is Asiata’s technique, clattering the opponent low around the knee area, that is the point of passionate debate.

Both Walmsley and Paasi have suffered serious knee ligament injuries, with the latter sidelined until Easter 2024. England international Walmsley is, according to Wellens, considering his future in the game.

“He’s hurtling himself at players’ knees,” Wellens said of Asiata. “It’s been an accident waiting to happen. The RFL are culpable and the match review panel are culpable because they’ve had numerous opportunities to get him, influence the way he tackles and stop him doing it and they’ve failed to do that.”


There is so much to pick through here. Firstly, Wellens is one of the most respected figures in the British game, so when he talks you listen, as the RFL to their immense credit have done. However, in making a point of publicly shaming a specific player, Wellens has thrown Asiata to the wolves and made the remainder of the season incredibly difficult for him. The spotlight will be on every Asiata tackle now, with a real risk of accompanying prejudice. Every rival fan, player, coach will have his number.

Secondly, another player constantly under the disciplinary spotlight is Saints’ own Knowles, whom Wellens has defended consistently in the face of criticism of his aggressive playing style. “He doesn’t go out on the field to injure players,” said Wellens of Knowles this season. So one must assume the same of Asiata.

Indeed, Leigh coach Adrian Lam said this week “as a player, as a person, as a family man, there is no better person in this world than him. In all of his morals and the way that he plays his game, he has no intention to ever hurt anyone.”

Thirdly is the question of Asiata’s tackling technique and whether Wellens does indeed have a point. Former St Helens forward Jon Wilkin described it as “reckless, dangerous, career-ending but not malicious,” on Sky Sports this week. Having seen countless angles at a variety of speeds, it is a tough call. Already knowing the severity of injury suffered always taints a replay when you watch it back, I feel. The Walmsley one in particular did not look good. But that is not to say it broke the rules, indeed the RFL ruled the offences insufficient to warrant a ban.

So perhaps that is the big problem here. A crusade to stamp out big contacts and high shots in a drive to reduce concussions has seen rugby league change dramatically as a sport. But has it been ignoring the real danger of dangerous low tackles through its preoccupation with sanitising ‘the biff’?

Leeds Rhinos boss Rohan Smith, a close friend of Paasi and a man whose side plays the champions this week, believes that may be the case.

“We are putting a lot of attention on mild high tackles or glancing blows which are met with harsh penalties,” said Smith. “Then [we have] something that carries a lot more intent and potentially a lot more injury risk. If the rules aren’t in place to take action then maybe the process needs to be reviewed and it is tackling in general that we need to scrutinise more than stuff just related to head and neck.”

Elsewhere this week the RFL continues to work on its new broadcast deal, while a host of clubs are ramping up their recruitment drives. Saints have announced Warrington Wolves' Daryl Clark as their new hooker, Castleford Tigers have signed Papua New Guinea forward Liam Horne, and a huge move has seen Wigan Warriors bring in Tyler Dupree immediately from Salford Red Devils, with Brad Singleton moving the other way.

I understand it is a busy time at Salford, as boss Paul Rowley fights to keep hold of his top stars. Next on Rowley’s to-do list will be to resolve the future of reigning Steve Prescott Man of Steel Brodie Croft, with Wests Tigers set to meet the release clause on his long-term contract, while star full-back Ryan Brierley continues to be courted by rival Super League clubs as he discusses a new Red Devils deal.

And how good to hear from Josh Hardcastle this week as the Featherstone Rovers forward gave his first interview since suffering a stroke two weeks ago. I spoke to Hardcastle at the Millennium Stadium and he was in fine form despite admitting his shock collapse was a real dose of perspective.

“That could have been it. It could have been game over,” the 30-year-old told me of the stroke he suffered while in the bath, caused by a torn artery in his brain. “It’s been surreal, not something you would ever expect to happen to any of the lads my age.”

The cause of the stroke remains unknown and Hardcastle refuses to blame the sport he plays for what has happened. “They said the tear was from head trauma, a bit of whiplash, it’s a bang on the head, something or nothing.

“It’s been really nice, the support and messages I’ve received, quite touching really as I’m normally called a bell-end so it’s nice to see that people actually care about me!”

Hardcastle will have another scan in three months' time to determine whether he is able to resume his career.


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