It’s what marks rugby league from the rest and, at the same time, is a mark of the man. It’s the toughest moment in what’s often described as the toughest ball game. It’s a Sunday afternoon at Lang Park, the last round of the competition proper.
The Brisbane Broncos are playing to seal a finals berth.
Their opponents are the Canberra Raiders, the Jekyll and Hyde of the competition, whose finals hopes were frittered away weeks earlier. There is a large, rabid crowd on hand, hell-bent on seeing the Broncos avenge an earlier defeat by the Raiders.
One of the game’s greats, Darren Lockyer, leads out a home team chock-full of stars.
In the Raiders’ last line of defence stands a gangling 19 year old, Josh Dugan. He’s one of several Under 20s players the Raiders have drafted into first grade this year, pinning their future on the slim shoulders of youth.
Sometimes it’s worked, sometimes it hasn’t. For the battling Raiders, they have no other choices.
The Broncos machine is firing on all cylinders, after weeks of stuttering. By rights, the no name Raiders should be swept away by the maroon and yellow torrent.
At half time, they’re still in it.
At the 25th minute mark of the second half, another of the game’s young guns, Dave Taylor, gets the ball and sets sail down the Broncos’ left flank. He’s a prop in the usual mould: built like a brick outhouse.
But wise judges have already marked him as something out of the ordinary.
Taylor covers the turf with extraordinary speed, and Wayne Bennett says he’s the most athletic forward he’s ever coached. He weighs 115 kilograms.
The Broncos have been unleashing Taylor out wide to test the physical and mental courage of some of the NRL’s best backs.
Many are called, few are chosen. Now it is Dugan’s turn.
Sometimes a footballer with ball in hand sees the red mist. Ostensibly, he’s trying tp put the pigskin over his opponent’s tryline. But in reality he wants to hurt – really hurt – the opponent in front of him.
On such occasions, the player makes eye contact with his unfortunate mark and never deviates from his path. Our friends across the Tasman call it the Maori sidestep.
Taylor bears down on Dugan. His gaze doesn’t waver.
Researchers say some of the collisions in the game generate the same forces on the human body as motor vehicle accidents. And the game cruelly gives players plenty of time to think about the impending crash.
Dugan knows full well the outcome yet launches himself at Taylor with everything he’s got With his last step, eyes wide open, he sets his 88 kilogram frame squarely and firmly in the big man’s path.
He braces for the contact.
Moments later, Dugan is sprawled on all fours on the Lang Park turf, existing in that terrible moment when the body is going through its checklist to see what’s broken.
He eventually gathers himself, and is backslapped by his teammates.
He’s just defied the laws of physics to send big Dave Taylor out into touch, at the same time demonstrating one of football’s timeless truths: if you back yourself, anything is possible
Afterwards, when the crowds have gone and the adrenalin has stopped playing havoc with his senses, Dugan gingerly touches a massive black eye.
It was Taylor-made for you, laugh his mates. There’s not much overt sympathy in a dressing shed. But respect is a different matter.
And Josh Dugan is getting it in spades.
(You can see the tackle about 1 minute 40 seconds into the video on this site.)