The late, great coach Jack Gibson used to say that when a player is thinking, he’s cultivating a mistake.
What he meant was that footballers play more freely – hence better – when they’re not analysing what they’re doing. Don’t think about it, stupid. Just do it.
True then, true now.
So much of footy, the actual game-play action, is headless-chook stuff. It’s sweat and froth and decisions made at high speed.
Imagine you’d just robbed a bank and were sprinting away, as fast as you can, lips flapping in the wind, great, long drool of spit squirting out the side of your mouth, and you’re just going flat out as hard as you can, fleeing.
Apart from “Run!”, you aren’t thinking. You aren’t calculating what to cook for dinner that night, do you have enough cans of tomatoes for spaghetti bol. Your brain’s full of hot fog.
For footy players it’s the hot fog of war.
Players don’t ‘think’ like you in the supermarket, pondering your next purchase. They don’t ‘make’ a tackle as a joiner might knock up a kitchen cabinet, all set squares and drop-saws.
Rather, a footballer makes a tackle like a bull gores a Pamplona backpacker. There’s the bastard thing in front of you, get stuck into it.
Just do it. React. Here cometh big human a speed, get body in road, let years of training direct action. Footballers aren’t thinking of shoulder position or leg drive – that stuff just happens. It’s in them, in so-called muscle memory.
To play footy is to hit and be hit. And if you can hurt your opponent all the better.
And thus when Titans front-rower Ryan James, a giant chunk of mankind who’ll be among Laurie Daley’s options to replace Paul Gallen, saw the chance to inflict some pain on Penrith’s Reagan Campbell-Gillard, he did so without thought.
James’ synapses would have told his brain (really, really, really quickly, mind): “Oh look. Spare ribs – get ’em!”
And his body just reacted. It’s not ‘memory’, per se. It’s just unthinking action. It’s flow.
And thus Campbell-Gillard – held up by two defenders, his back exposed and appearing to Ryan like a great side of beef in Rocky’s meat locker – has a pair of busted vertebrae, and is out for the season. Because big Ryan of the resurgent Titans saw a chance to whack the man, and did.
Reactions to James’ innocuous-looking though aptly-named ‘hit’ have been varied.
Campbell-Gillard’s Panthers teammate Dallin Watene-Zelezniak said it was “100 per cent a cheap shot”.
“Someone comes in like that, they’re going to hurt someone. I know a lot of the boys are filthy,” said Watene-Zelezniak.
Teammate Tyrone Peachey agreed: “It’s been happening all year and refs aren’t doing anything about it. Something needs to happen there. Having players out for the rest of the season is not a good look for the game.”
Peachey warned it could be open slather, with defenders “flying in for the rest of the season”, seeing the chance to whack some exposed back ribs and taking it.
“[Campbell-Gillard] is out for the rest of the year now and he’s a massive part of our team. This just can’t be happening,” added Peachey.
But it is. And it’s legal. You’re allowed to hurt your opponent.
James’ style of tackle – if you can call it that, throwing the point of your shoulder into the exposed back ribs of a man going nowhere given two blokes working over his upper body – isn’t illegal.
And like a front-on pile-driver into the sternum, it’s part of the game. It’s a bit more ‘grubby’. But that’s part of the game, also.
It’s not the part the NRL wants to advertise to those so-powerful recruitment tools, your soccer mums. But it is part of the game.
It’s the gladiatorial part of rugby league. It’s the part that’s meant to hurt. If the game didn’t hurt, and there weren’t opponents looking to hurt you, anyone could play it.
Fact is, there are players whose aim it is to hurt you. Ain’t no kindergarten out there.
Reaction to James’ tackle highlights a funny old dichotomy in rugby league, which is that there’s a moral standard expected that players well paid to inflict wanton violence upon others, should not inflict wanton violence upon others.
Well, they should inflict violence. But as soon as it really hurts someone, that is bad.
But James was just doing what he’s paid to do: hurt his opponents.
It is part of the game. And one person’s ‘grub’ is another’s ‘enforcer’.
Did James want to damage the Panther man’s vertebrae? Rub him out of the game? For the season? Only our Ryan can answer that, but you’d suggest not. He’s a front-row forward, not a sociopath.
But you could also suggest with a fair amount of certitude – given, you know, front-row forwards – James did want to hurt his opponent.
Break his back? Shit no. Really bruise his rib region? Make it purple and tender to the touch?
Hurt the man?
The James hit came about partly because of ruck speed. Coaches drill into their charges to slow it down.
If your opponent gets quick play-the-ball and big men charge forward and gift crafty ones ball in space on the hop, they’ll set speed men free. You can’t defend that. You are so much toast.
So the best way to slow the play-the-ball is that perverse muscle-man dance known euphemistically as ‘the wrestle’, which is actually highly-trained manoeuvres of Olympic judo and Brazilian Jiu-jitsu.
My mate competed in judo for Australia. His whole family was, all nine kids. Went to Olympics, Comm Games. And you don’t want to get lippy with these people on the piss. They can fold you into an origami duck.
Anyway, this mate reckons Cameron Smith is so good at the intricate manoeuvres of man-manipulation as practiced by your middle men in this National Rugby League, that were he to brush rugby league for judo (like Jarryd Hayne did for the NFL except heaps weirder) he would be an automatic blue belt.
And because of that people call Smith a ‘grub’, and others call him a champion, and not many people call him both because people don’t do nuance like that.
Rugby league is goodies and baddies, great blokes or grubs.
And one man saw the chance to inflict some pain on an opponent and took it.
And Reagan Campbell-Gillard is out for the season. And Ryan James is not.
And here we are. Thinking about it.