When Australia’s top orthopaedic says gang tackles must be outlawed, your first reaction is probably to grimace at the prospect of another unenforceable law change. No, blowing the whistle when the third man comes in is NOT the answer.
Instead, the NRL can solve the problem and at the same time make the game simpler, more entertaining and more popular – all it has to do is change the shape of the field.
This is not my idea.
It was first suggested to me by Warren Ryan, one of the great lateral thinkers of the game.
I was covering the Knights on a daily basis when he was coach, and every so often, when the mood would take him, he would plop down next to me and blurt his latest philosophy on the game.
One day, he said simply; “Imagine what it would do to the game if they fattened the sidelines in the middle.”
I have, and I’m convinced it is a single, elegant solution to a multitude of evils that are plaguing rugby league.
Why are gang tackles a growing problem?
They involve multiple big men hitting a single ball carrier.
Done right, it is the biggest blokes applying full force to the littlest guy on the other side.
Gang tackle break people. They snap tendons. They bend knees in the wrong direction. They shorten careers. They rob the game of its stars.
That’s why orthopaedic surgeon Merv Cross told News Limited this week that gang tackles and shoulder charges must be stopped. He is confronted with the physical damage every day.
But so are you. Because, according to Dean Ritchie’s numbers, 17 players worth $4 million were lost in the opening round alone.
That’s a lot of talent you aren’t seeing, and while I don’t have data to back this up, I’d suggest smaller, more lithe (read: quicker and more exciting) players are more likely to be hurt for longer.
Stars on sidelines are an expensive waste of time and talent.
But I know what you are thinking: “I’d rather see my 20 favourite players on the sideline than seeing 20 more penalties a game as the two referees blow the pea out of it for every gang tackle.”
Cue the tiresome controversy. Was he a passive participant? Did he drop off? Was there a fifth hand on and no penalty was forthcoming?
No. Not an option. We cannot bear one more tackle law. But we cannot allow legalised thuggery to cripple our best and brightest.
So let’s move the goalposts. Well, the sideline actually.
Imagine for a moment you are looking down on a football field from above. There is current a straight line from the try line to the halfway line.
Now imagine the halfway line extended two metres at either edge and the try line shortened by a metre at either end.
A winger on his goal line would now see a field that widens in front of him until he gets to halfway then narrows as he approaches the opposition goal line.
What does all this have to do with gang tackling?
Gang tackling has become a problem because bigger, fitter, faster athletes are able to get to a tackle in greater numbers than their forebears of 25 years ago.
More muscle, more mobile equals more mutilation. And the centre of the park is their territory. One out running, easy pickings.
But what if the 12 men in the defensive frontline found that out near halfway they had more territory to defend?
Commit too many in that tackle and you are exposed on the edges. Gather together a gang in the middle and invite the little and the quick to go around you.
The gang tackle would not need to be outlawed. It would become an unfeasible, outmoded tactic – much like tackling around the bootlaces is today.
It would simply disappear.
This new playing field produces a series of other, less obvious benefits too.
It will largely eliminate the mid-field slog – the least interesting part of the game where forwards belt it up for four tackles, make eight metres apiece, hoping to get halfway to give the halfback a shot at a 40/20 or an attacking kick.
No, now the incentive is to use the room, to get creative. It will not blow-out scorelines.
Sure, a roomy middle means less time defending near halfway and more try line defence, but the try line would be more defendable than it is now. And wingers would be more likely to get around a defence, but less able to run away from cover.
It funnels the game into the more exciting places.
This simple change even benefits junior development, where administrators are battling the problems of little guys being bashed out of the game by early-developing behemoths.
No worries, little guy, we’ve given you a little more space to move in so you can use your guile, your step, your speed to escape the big boppers. Ten years from now, those skills will be bringing fans through the turnstiles.
But perhaps the greatest advantage of this simple change: it solves the gang tackle problem without the involvement of the referee.
It doesn’t create more laws that slow the game, confuse it and more often, than not, create controversy.
Could it happen?
There are a few minor logistical issues such as the configuration of grounds but most NRL stadiums are designed to accommodate playing surfaces of various widths.
It would also take some technical and tactical adjustment. That’s the point.
But it is no more revolutionary than the ten metre rule, limited tackles or interchange. They were introduced to solve problems and they produced the game we love today.
And it’s more welcome than some other recent innovations such as the extra referee.
It’s better for players, it’s better for clubs and it’s better for fans and it’s an investment in the future.
I dare the NRL to try it next pre-season.