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To get serious about concussion, ban tackles above the waist

Bret Harris Columnist

By Bret Harris, Bret Harris is a Roar Expert New author!

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    The NRL should be congratulated for its recent crackdown on clubs for concussion breaches, but the record $350,000 fines only treated the symptoms of the disease – and not the cause.

    Concussion, we all know, is caused by blows to the head. It is an injury to the brain and long-term effects can be serious.

    While it is important for players to leave the field after they have received a head knock to assess whether they have been concussed, all reasonable measures should be taken to minimise the incidence of concussion in the first place.

    The starting point for reducing concussion should be lowering the acceptable point of contact in the tackle from the chest to the waist.

    Under NRL rules, a tackler cannot make contact with the head or neck of an opponent “intentionally, recklessly or carelessly.”

    Unlike rugby union where defenders are always held responsible for head-high tackles no matter the circumstances, rugby league players continually get away with high shots which are deemed accidental.

    How many times do we see defenders make first contact with the chest or shoulder and then the arm deflects onto the attacking player’s head. Sorry about that, didn’t mean it, is hardly an excuse.

    A hit in the head is a hit in the head whether it was intended or not and has the same potential to cause concussion and subsequent health issues.

    You could follow rugby union’s example and penalise accidental contact with the head, but accidents happen. How do you deter someone from doing something that was not deliberate in the first place?

    The answer, in part, is lowering the acceptable point of contact to the waist, which would help to eliminate head knocks caused by deflections of the arm off the upper body.

    A rule change such as this would no doubt have a significant effect on the shape of the game, but potentially for the better.

    The reason players tackle high is to prevent the attacker from passing the ball and to slow down the play-the-ball.

    Josh Dugan NRL rugby league concussion

    There is little doubt that if players were compelled to tackle no higher than the waist, then attackers would have much more opportunity to off-load the ball.

    Okay, eliminating around the chest tackles may take away some of the gladiatorial combat from the game, but surely, getting rid of negative tactics designed to slow down the play would be a good thing. More off-loads would create more continuity and attacking play. Ultimately, is that not what the fans come to see?

    If a sporting administrator had an opportunity to enhance the game as a spectacle and improve player welfare at the same time with a single law change, he or she would be crazy not to consider it.

    Player welfare must be one of the main priorities of rugby league officials. Rugby league is a tough game, but it does not need to be thuggish.

    It is in the NRL’s own self-interest to tackle the concussion issue head-on so to speak. Just Look at what has happened in the NFL in the US with legal action taken by former players.

    That is not to say the NRL is not taking the issue seriously within the existing rules of the game, but clearly more can be done.

    There are a lot of things the NRL can do to help to reduce the incidence of concussion and many of them have been widely discussed.

    There is a push for the introduction of independent doctors at matches as occurs in other body contact sports such as rugby union. And there is a proposal to have an 18th player on the reserves bench to cover concussed players.

    All of these suggestions have merit, but once again they treat the symptoms of the disease and not the cause, which is knocks to the head.

    The best way to minimise the incidence of concussion in rugby league is to keep the defensive armoury as far away as possible from the head, which must be a no-go area for defenders whether intentional or not.

    A better game and a safer game. Anyone who uses their head, will see those twin objectives are not incompatible.

    Bret Harris
    Bret Harris

    One of Australia's most respected sports journalists, Bret Harris has been a mainstay of sports media in the country for decades. He has written extensively about rugby union, rugby league and many other sports, and is the author of a number of books, including Rocky Elsom: Leader of the Wallabies and Ella: The Definitive Biography, which he co-authored alongside Mark Ella.

    The New South Wales State of Origin team for the 2018 series remains a mystery, with new coach Brad Fittler facing plenty of selection headaches. So we want you to tell us - and all your mates - who should start for Blues in Game 1 with our team picker.

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    The Crowd Says (67)

    • March 28th 2017 @ 5:32am
      Simon G said | March 28th 2017 @ 5:32am | ! Report

      This is a joke right?

      • Roar Guru

        March 28th 2017 @ 9:02am
        Chop said | March 28th 2017 @ 9:02am | ! Report

        They’ve published early, was supposed to be released on April 1st.

      • Roar Pro

        March 28th 2017 @ 9:37am
        MrJSquishy said | March 28th 2017 @ 9:37am | ! Report

        I clicked on it thinking it was going to be a tongue in cheek article, but sadly, I think he is “legit”. What a load of tripe? Why don’t we just eliminate tackling all together? Or, maybe play the game without a ball so the arm can’t come up off the ball? It’ll be like when we used to play Cowboys and Indians as children; “I shot you!”, “Nah, I shot you first!”, “Maaaaahm!!”

        • March 28th 2017 @ 11:34am
          Bugs said | March 28th 2017 @ 11:34am | ! Report

          Gold!

        • March 28th 2017 @ 1:24pm
          Kramer said | March 28th 2017 @ 1:24pm | ! Report

          Welcome to the roar…which has become a click bait festival. Exit stage left!

    • March 28th 2017 @ 5:54am
      Zozza said | March 28th 2017 @ 5:54am | ! Report

      The author of this article is a complete doofus. If this ridiculous suggestion were ever introduced, you’d just have players offloading all day at will, and the game would become some hilarious version of touch football.
      There are inherent risks in playing the game of Rugby League. It is a brutal game for sure. A player alone makes the choice to play the game, or take up a less physically strenuous game like chess.
      Much like the ‘Ban the Bouncer’ call in Cricket – the people whom make these ridiculous suggestions have absolutely no idea what they are talking about.

      • March 28th 2017 @ 5:56am
        Zozza said | March 28th 2017 @ 5:56am | ! Report

        Addendum: I see the writer is basically a Rah Rah writer. Hey author – your game has always been the ‘soft’ version of the Rugby codes. In fact – watching a chess match will garner more action than a game of Rah Rah.

        • Roar Guru

          March 28th 2017 @ 11:12am
          jeznez said | March 28th 2017 @ 11:12am | ! Report

          Zozz, no need to fan a code war. I’m a union bloke but agree that Brett’s suggestion is off the reservation.

        • March 28th 2017 @ 11:04pm
          Kramer said | March 28th 2017 @ 11:04pm | ! Report

          What level of either game did you play Zozza? It seems in my opinion those who talk about toughness etc usually were the ones who ran away from the ball…i bet your’e no different!

          Anyone who plays either code at high level gets my respect..

        • March 29th 2017 @ 2:25am
          Yoda said | March 29th 2017 @ 2:25am | ! Report

          Well then Sozza when players start court proceedings against the nrl for their duty of care I want to hear your bull s£)t comment

      • March 29th 2017 @ 10:30am
        Jacko said | March 29th 2017 @ 10:30am | ! Report

        ZOZZZZZA I wonder which code will still be around in 20 years if rugby changes rules to reduce concussion and league doesn’t. Both codes, and AFL, will need to redress this issue.
        I do see you as a person who cant follow chess

    • March 28th 2017 @ 6:06am
      Simon G said | March 28th 2017 @ 6:06am | ! Report

      I would be interested to see some data that explains which types of tackles result in the most head knocks. I’d dare say that the legs tackle produces the most concussions due to a hip to the temple, a stray knee, or simply by the defender getting his head in the wrong spot.

      Maybe we should ban tackling above the knees just to make sure everyone is ok.

      • March 28th 2017 @ 7:40am
        Alex said | March 28th 2017 @ 7:40am | ! Report

        Yea and his suggestion would make the chance of that happening much more would it not and as others will say more often than not it isn’t the guy with the ball getting hurt.

      • Roar Guru

        March 28th 2017 @ 11:08am
        jeznez said | March 28th 2017 @ 11:08am | ! Report

        Simon you are spot on. They did some studies in Union and the players most at risk of concussion during a tackle, are tacklers going low and copping a head knock against a knee or hip.

        Didn’t stop the Union grand poobahs creating their penalties against accidental head knocks on the tackle – which will only force tacklers lower and………………….therefore lead to more concussions.

        Apparently there is no need to protect the tacklers head though!

        Maybe both games should only be allowed to be played wearing sumo suits or those bouncy bubbles used in bubble football

      • March 28th 2017 @ 11:40am
        Bugs said | March 28th 2017 @ 11:40am | ! Report

        Absolutely spot on!

        Concussions are often caused by getting your head in the wrong spot trying to tackle low. Further, there are times when the attacking player ducks his head and/or slips over and in cases like this the defenders would actively have to get out of the road lest they be penalised!

        What a dumb call. The premise of this article is ridiculous, and has not been thought through at all. A thought bubble that needs to be popped asap.

      • March 28th 2017 @ 2:18pm
        Albo said | March 28th 2017 @ 2:18pm | ! Report

        Spot on Simon G ! High tackles are rarely featured in the concussion stats of recent times, as the high shots have been outlawed with serious penalties ( eg Hymel Hunt recently). Most concussions are happening through tacklers putting their heads on the wrong spot when trying to tackle below the waist !!!

    • March 28th 2017 @ 6:29am
      joe said | March 28th 2017 @ 6:29am | ! Report

      I don’t live in Australia anymore but check in on TheRoar to keep updated on certain sports,this is the most ridiculous article i have seen posted on this site.
      Rugby league is a dangerous sport (as is the NFL) where you have elite athletes colliding with each other at high rates of speed over & over again.
      Its dangerous everyone knows it you can’t avoid injuries.Nobody is forcing these guys to go & play.Its voluntary on their part & by the way,they make millions of dollars in compensation.
      So its a risk/reward situation.You are happy to make life changing money over the course of 5 or 6 years ,the downside is there is a slim chance you may suffer post playing career from head related injuries.If thats a risk a player isn’t willing to take that is his choice,he can get a job at a hardware store or wherever & forego a huge paycheck in return for being safer in his profession.

    • March 28th 2017 @ 6:38am
      Mike from tari said | March 28th 2017 @ 6:38am | ! Report

      I think that you will find that the higher percentage of head knocks are incurred by the defenders.

      • Columnist

        March 28th 2017 @ 7:06am
        Stuart Thomas said | March 28th 2017 @ 7:06am | ! Report

        Agreed Mike, whilst a swinging arm occasionally causes a head knock, it is indeed the defenders tackling low who receive the more significant number of concussions. Incidental contact between two defenders as they launch into a tackle is also commonplace. Not sure if the article is actually serious or a veiled attempt to fan the flames of the concussion issue from someone who doesn’t seem too familiar with its intricacies.

        • March 28th 2017 @ 7:36am
          AJL. said | March 28th 2017 @ 7:36am | ! Report

          Given the biographies of RU players listed in the author’s profile, I’m going for the latter.

      • March 28th 2017 @ 8:49am
        AGO74 said | March 28th 2017 @ 8:49am | ! Report

        I think despite the authors assertion that accidental head contact is only penalised in rugby you will also find that most accidental contact with the head is penalised. Most – but not all. The suggestion by the author that it’s not penalised in league is incorrect.

        I agree with the others that if you don’t allow tackles above the waist that rugby league will turn into a version of 9’s but over 80 minutes. Imagine the scores…..

    • March 28th 2017 @ 7:07am
      Anthony said | March 28th 2017 @ 7:07am | ! Report

      A very flawed argument.
      Could you imagine the number of head clashes with defenders all tackling low, the number of defenders getting their head on the wrong side of the hip. Not to mention the number of season ending knee injuries to attacking players.

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