THE NRL has defended referee Gerard Sutton's decision to stop play immediately after Corey Oates was knocked out in a match-shaping play that denied the Panthers a try early in the Broncos' victory.
The winger was left motionless on the turf after a sickening collision with teammate Anthony Milford with the play stopped as Penrith attacked down the right sideline and looked certain to score.
Oates was taken off on a medicab, was unable to return to the field, and was dazed so badly he's now in doubt for the Broncos' preliminary final clash with the Storm.
However, the referee's call to stop play has divided opinion with Dragons great Mark Gasnier and senior News Corp journalist Paul Kent both arguing in Fox League's post-match show that play should have been allowed to go on.
"It's big. And this is hard because I sit there and if I'm Corey Oates' mum or dad I sit there watching and I think we're arguing about a try being scored but then you're a Penrith Panthers fan, to the letter of the law that's play on," Gasnier said.
"Because they didn't regather the football, the Brisbane Broncos. If they did that would have constituted a knock on and a scrum being packed.
"But the ball lay there, they picked it up and they ran. And that would have been 6-all."
Gasnier is correct in the sense that in the usual course of play Penrith's clean regather of Milford's knock on should have allowed play to go on.
However, the referee does have the discretion within the laws of the game to stop play if a serious injury is suspected.
That was pointed out by a spokesman for the NRL immediately after the game, who told foxsports.com.au: "There are guidelines in place regarding head injuries which enable play to be stopped immediately in some circumstances.
"There was a potentially serious injury involved and the referee determined that player welfare should be the focus.
"Play was stopped immediately as the team doctor had to urgently enter the field."
However Gasnier said allowing the referee to make judgment calls like that on injured players had the potential to open a can of worms.
"Problem is, we're now leaving the refs to be doctors. How can we say we leave it in their hands to say you've got to adjudicate, he's motionless," Gasnier said.
"We've got to take interpretations out of the refs' hands as much as possible. They've got such a hard job."
Kent agreed with Gasnier's assessment that play should have been allowed to go on, pointing out that "the one thing the referees didn't want this week was another howler that dominated the conversation".
Kevin Walters, meanwhile, sided with the officials, saying it was not worth taking risks with player welfare.
"I've got no problem with the referee pulling up the play, I've got to say," Walters said.
"Player welfare is a big part of the game and certainly the foremost in the referee's mind, he must have thought Corey Oates was really seriously injured.
"Technically that play hasn't (cost the Panthers the game) because it happened (so early in the game).
"So they still had (60 minutes) to save their season. But it could have been a game changer for the Panthers."
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