Newcastle Knights coach Adam O'Brien has described a crucial penalty against Tyson Frizell for pulling Jarome Luai's hair as "ridiculous" after his side fell to a heartbreaking golden point defeat to Penrith on Saturday night. The Knights were the better side for much of the game at a raucous McDonald Jones Stadium, but it was 'ice man' Nathan Cleary's field goal in extra time that sealed a hard-fought victory for the two-time defending NRL premiers.
The Knights looked for long periods like they were about to pull off the upset of the season so far, after leading 14-8 midway through the second half. However, a controversial penalty against Frizell gave the Panthers field position deep inside Newcastle's half and the visitors scored a try two plays later to leave the scores all locked up.
'EXTRAORDINARY': Nicho Hynes justifies $7 million hype in awesome scenes
'GET IT OUT': NRL greats clash over contentious hip-drop incidents
'TOUGH TO WATCH': Mitchell Moses' sad confession about Luke Brooks
Frizell was pinged for grabbing the back of Luai's hair as the Penrith five-eighth tried to scamper though the home side's defence. Replays showed that the Knights forward had actually grabbed the back of Luai's jersey but also got a piece of the Panthers star's long locks in the process.
“It’s a tough one when they’ve got long hair,” league great Michael Ennis said in commentary for Fox League. “Tyson Frizell’s just trying to grab the jersey. You roll with a wild haircut, sometimes they’re going to get a hold of you.” Co-caller Warren Smith joked: “You grow your hair down to your shorts you’re never going to be able to be tackled.”
Frizzel suggested there was not much else he could do when discussing the contentious penalty after the game. "When his hair's hanging halfway down his back and I'm going to make a tackle, it's incidental, I guess, if I do pull his hair," he said.
"It's classified as a penalty but it wasn't intentional. I'd like for him to tie his hair up."
Newcastle's coach was more incensed about the incident and questioned whether players with long hair had an edge if such penalties would continue to be paid. "It's ridiculous," O'Brien said. "Otherwise I'll advise them all to start growing their hair long to try and get an advantage.
"I think players get a bit of credit, they are actually just trying to make tackles and get people on the ground, take them to the ground. I guess there must be a lot of innuendo that players are out there to maim each other and pull hair ... it's not the case."
Jerome Luai’s hair covering any part of his jersey is an unfair advantage, if that’s going to be considered a penalty. He should have to wear a head gear or any grab within the jersey region is perfectly legal. Absolute joke #NRLKnightsPanthers
— Rugby League God (@RugbyLeagueGod) April 15, 2023
If you're gonna penalise accidental hair pulls, especially when the player has the jersey as well, then the player with the long hair should have to, in some way, mitigate the risk of it being pulled. Luai in no way should be allowed to play with his hair down like that.
— Jarrad (@fishonheat) April 15, 2023
Luai wears his hair half down and shock horror a player accidentally grabs at it when performing a tackle! You’d never see it coming!
— It’s me, Zee! (@ZebraZeeNRL) April 15, 2023
Penalty? Na man, Friz grabbed Luai's jersey but he just happened to have hair. Absolute trash call
— Northy (@Phaycenawth) April 15, 2023
What a joke. Penalty for grabbing hair that runs past Luai’s shoulders?
Followed by a Penrith try?
Seems unfair. A gift for the Panthers.#NRLKnightsPanthers
— Scott Keenan (@Scott_Keenan) April 15, 2023
Panthers coach brushes off penalty dramas
Penrith's first try came after referee Peter Gough penalised Dane Gagai for dissent while playing the ball in his own half. Panthers winger Brian To'o capitalised on the bizarre incident to cross out wide for the visitors, with the Knights crossing for three tries of their own in a dominant first 40 minutes.
Newcastle benefited from a fortunate call of their own when officials opted not to penalise Lachlan Fitzgibbon for a late hit on Cleary, after the Panthers star kicked the first of two field goals. That came in response to Tyson Gamble's one-pointer for the Knights moments earlier, with Cleary again coming up clutch for Penrith in golden point.
Panthers coach Ivan Cleary would not be drawn on the hair-pull call, or the referee's decision to overlook Fitzgibbon's late contact on his son and halfback, Nathan. "We've all got views but we don't want to turn into a headline. Happy to get the win and move on," Cleary said.
O'Brien understood the frustration of the Panthers playing group after Cleary was taken out but said both sides benefited from questionable calls. "If it happened to us, we'd be appealing for it too so I'm not blaming Penrith," he said. "(But) we had penalties for bad language and another penalty for hair-pulling tonight. How many do we want to have?"
Sign up to our newsletter and score the biggest sport stories of the week.