What do we make of the new NRL concussion rule? Is it an over-reaction by the NRL? Is it merely the flavour of the month? A passing phase, as it were? Is the game at risk of becoming over sanitised by accommodating the minority? Or, is it a legitimate concern for player welfare and the NRL needs to do a little more to protect it’s most treasured asset? Let’s put the concussion debate under the scanner and look at possible implications including the potential for litigation exposure.
For many decades, one of the many appeals of the game of rugby league, to me, has always been the gladiatorial aspect. For a kid growing up just a stone throw away from Lidcombe Oval, my most vivid memories was watching Dallas Donnelly, Bob Cooper, Les Boyd and Tommy Raudonikis beat opposition teams into complete submission. Sitting on the old Lidcombe oval bike track and watching the Maggies thunder out of the tunnel was akin to front row seat at The Colosseum watching the lions being released to the Christians. At the risk of over-dramatising and exposing a penchant for the sadistic, we simply craved for the killing. The first sign of a stoush. The first dubious hit which invariably brought the crowd to their feet. Pity Russell Crowe wasn’t around in those days. His Caesar thumb would’ve got one hec of a workout.
The game, like most things in life, has evolved. Mostly for the better. Always with good intention. Hence the reason why the shoulder charge was outlawed. Hence the reason why the punch is met with a great deal of intrepidation. Hence the reason why the concussion rule was instituted this year. It’s all about protecting the player and, in particular, the head. Since the Ian Roberts story broke several weeks ago, the debate has raged about whether the concussion drama and, in particular, the brain damage caused by repeated hits to the head, has been blown out of proportion. Wayne Bennett certainly thinks it has. Gordon Tallis has stated that players, like workers, understand the risk of their chosen occupation and deal with those risks accordingly. On the other hand, former players like Mario Fenech, Mark Geyer and Matthew Johns have expressed deep concern about the affects of several years of constant contact to the head. Issues like memory loss and “punch drunk” state of minds have surfaced after various brain examinations were taken by ex players.
Player welfare must always be of paramount importance when considering the rules of the game. However, there appears to be a deeper issue. One of potential litigation, like the current class action undertaken by ex-NFL players claiming damages for $760 Million. The cynic in me will argue that the NRL’s tough stance on head contact is a direct knee-jerk reaction (or over reaction?) to the NFL lawsuit. Perhaps future player contracts and, in particular, indemnity provisions will be amended to protect the NRL from potential legal action. Regardless, I think the rule-makers may have misdiagnosed the real problem. Players are getting bigger, faster and stronger and you don’t have to be a physics expert to work out what can potentially happen when two objects weighing over 100kg collide at high speeds. It has been compared to being hit by a car travelling at 40km/hr. It only takes a very slight misjudgment or mis-execution for things to go horribly wrong. Tim Simona’s tackle on Greg Inglis a case in point. Ditto, Alex McKinnon.
I believe part of the problem is the 10 meter rule. The more you increase the space between teams and the bigger/stronger/faster players get, the more risk of dangerous collision. The other problem is coaching. Every time a rule is put in place, coaches will immediately devise a way to circumvent that rule. The NRL then finds itself chasing it’s tail trying to tighten or modify the rule. Todd Greenburg can threaten all the action against clubs that he likes. It remains to be seen if the concussion rule is police-able. I watched Bulldog Josh Jackson remain on the field when he should’ve clearly been taken off. I’ve seen Liam Fulton hit the deck more times than a WWF contender. What now? Coaches will no doubt devise strategies to exploit this rule either by putting out a key player like Greg Inglis in an “accidental” tackle or by telling a dispensable player to “go down” and earn a free interchange.
Whilst, I must admit, I do miss the days at Lidcombe Oval and I do miss the monstrous Sonny Bill Williams shoulder charges that would instantly turn a game, I don’t miss the cheap shots nor do I miss the sickening tackles like the ones in days gone by. Having said that, I don’t want my game over sanitised. I just wonder if this sanitising process has driven fans away from the game? It’s a delicate balance. Good luck Mr Greenburg.