Shoulder charges? We owe a duty of care to rugby league
Imagine that you are a player in the NRL. You are facing the judiciary hoping to get a downgrade from a possible five-game suspension.
The reason you are there is because the Match Review Committee has charged you with a grade four dangerous contact charge, as you have shoulder charged an opponent and the point of contact was the opponent’s head.
Despite this, you are feeling quietly confident that you will get the downgrade.
Now imagine that the chairman of the judiciary, Greg Woods, makes this statement: “”Our sport is not gladiatorial. This is not cage fighting. We do not allow damage beyond the rules. The NRL has a responsibility to ensure players with a safe system of work. This is a legal duty.”
How are you feeling now?
The above scenario is what greeted Greg Inglis and his South Sydney representatives Wednesday night. Incredibly, even after the Woods statement, the dangerous contact charge was reduced.
Am I the only one who is mystified by this? How can the judiciary chairman make such a strong statement but then down grade the charge that the Match Review Committee assigned?
If Woods was looking to make an example out of Inglis he has failed miserably. What was the motivation behind Woods’ statement? Was it directed at Inglis, the shoulder charge or the point of contact in the hit? I hope for rugby league’s sake, it was the point of contact.
Despite what you may read or hear elsewhere, the shoulder charge is not the bad guy here. The shoulder charge has been in rugby league for many years and has been a great source of motivation for players as well as a great source of excitement for the fans.
However, it is a low percentage ‘tackle’. The number of times it is executed well is very low when compared to a regulation tackle. Not because of the reason Inglis found himself in front of the judiciary, but because the opposition player usually bumps off the hit and continues running.
Gold Coast Titans defensive coach Trevor “The Axe” Gillmeister, who made a name for himself through his punishing tackling style in his playing days, refuses to coach the shoulder charge due to this reason alone.
I’m inclined to agree with him.
If you look at all of the shoulder charges that have come before the judiciary this season, you will see that they all make direct contact with the head of the opposing player. The “legal duty” rugby league owes its players is the protection of a player’s head and therefore reduce the risk of brain injury.
In fact, if you want to take Woods’ statement even more literally he may well have been referring to the biggest black mark currently on the game: wrestling.
“This is not cage fighting. We do not allow damage beyond the rules.”
Ask yourself another question. What is a major component of cage fighting? What is a major component of MMA? Is wrestling near the top of the list? Unfortunately, wrestling is now well entrenched in rugby league.
The Melbourne Storm first brought wrestling into the game as a means of slowing down the play the ball. However the techniques used have a more sinister side to them, in that they inflict injury on the ball carrier. We’ve seen examples such as the “crusher” and the “choke”. The “chicken wing” is still in vogue and in recent times the “ankle twister” has reared its ugly head.
Surely these acts are just as illegal as a high shot. Using the Woods statement, wrestling moves must be seen as just as big a blight on rugby league as the shoulder charge that goes wrong: possibly more so as these acts are being used to give their side an unfair advantage in the ruck area.
Once again the Storm seem to lead the way in this regard. And in my opinion, you can’t go past their captain Cameron Smith as the biggest offender. How many judiciary hearings has Smith faced in regards to any wrestling moves?
Nowhere near enough for a player who has more moves in his repertoire than Georges St-Pierre. However Smith is not the only player who takes wrestling too far at times, just as Inglis is not the only player to have had a shoulder charge go wrong.
So what can be done? How can the game of rugby league perform its “legal duty” and protect its players?
The Match Review Committee, Judiciary and ARLC need to get serious about player safety and take action against those who disregard the health of opposition players. These players must spend extended periods of time on the sidelines. But to do that, they need to correctly identify what is unacceptable on the field.
The spear tackle, lifting past the horizontal and lifting from between a player’s legs were banned years ago because of the real danger of a player becoming a quadriplegic through that kind of tackle.
As much as I hate the idea of changing any rules, ball security and the ruck area need an overhaul.
Many tackles become high tackles when a defender is trying to wrap up the ball and stop an offload but misses the target. If there is more than one defender in the tackle, the ball carrier is free to try to offload. Chances are that if he loses control of the football, he will receive a penalty for an apparent strip.
Perhaps the rule should be changed to put more emphasis on the ball carrier to control the ball despite the number of tacklers. This may be criticised but it puts the onus back on to the tackled player to secure the ball, something we were taught to do in under eights.
As for the ruck, I can’t see why we need to change any rules there. The interpretation of the rules may need to be looked at however. This involves the referees, MRC, judiciary members and ARLC involvement.
Everyone has to be on the same page. Otherwise, the status quo will remain and the best wrestlers will control the speed of the game. The Cameron Smiths of the world will continue to be body contortionists just to control the ruck area and slow the play the ball.
If these aspects of rugby league are changed, the penalties involving direct hits to the head and illegal wrestling holds must also change.
The duty of care in regards to players cannot be ignored, we owe the same to the game of rugby league.
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