This week there was a rush of news about the NRL, concussion and the degenerative brain condition chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) after researchers announced they’d found CTE in the brains of two deceased former players.
Concussion is a massive problem in contact sports and is at the forefront of the minds of any decent sports administrator who is thinking about the future.
It costs a lot if you leave it unchecked, too – in the last two years alone, America’s National Football League has paid out over $AUD676 million in compensation to players affected by concussion, and that amount is rising.
What’s the solution? It’s a tough one. You’ll never eradicate concussion, but you can take clear steps to try and reduce it.
Rugby league is always going to be a high-speed, high-impact, collision sport. Players do their best to look after each other but first and foremost, they’re out there to win a game and win a physical battle.
Players rightly expect that they’ll be protected, too. Part of this protection is giving appropriate punishments to discourage foul play, and this is where the NRL is falling down badly.
Something is seriously wrong with the system when a player can get sent to the sin bin for ten minutes if they lay in a tackle too long, but can continue playing if they knock someone out with a swinging arm to the face.
Behaviour needs to change. And the only way that happens is if the NRL get much, much stronger on foul play and high contact. Not just at the judiciary, but on the field.
After referee Ashley Klein to send Parramatta’s Michael Jennings to the bin in Round 1 for a high tackle that ended the day of Penrith’s Isaah Yeo, we assumed that this would be the standard for 2019. The action taken by Klein (with help from the Bunker) was supported by the NRL head of football, Graham Annesley.
“The rules were changed last year to allow players to go to the sin bin for foul play in those circumstances,” Annesley said of the Jennings sin bin.
“In hindsight, that was a good move. It helps to ensure teams aren’t disadvantaged in those situations, but ultimately the referee, the video referee have to make those decisions based on the seriousness of the incident and there will be disagreement about those decisions from time to time.
“They are rules that are intended to try and help protect player safety and to ensure teams aren’t disadvantaged as a result of foul play.”
Jennings was also hit with a grade two careless high-tackle charge and suspended for a week.
It sounded great, the system worked. But for all Annesley’s words, the NRL hasn’t followed through. The obvious reticence to make a game 17 versus 16, even for just ten minutes, doesn’t marry up with their talk of player welfare.
It’s been said before but in 2018, 112 players were sin binned and zero were sent off. After 15 rounds this season just 21 players have copped ten minutes and no one has been sent off.
A lot of these sin binnings have been for professional fouls, like holding a player down in the tackle, giving away repeat penalties or illegally preventing a try.
Even worse, acts that aren’t deemed worthy of a sin bin or send off have resulted in hefty suspensions at the judiciary.
Here’s just a selection of recent suspensions that were not punished with a sin bin or send off at the time:
That’s 16 weeks’ worth of suspension, but not one second off the field during the game.
Let’s not even start on the Burgess suspension, either. Rabbitohs fans must be wondering how what their man George did is any worse than what North Queensland’s Josh McGuire did, twice… For two contrary conduct fines, totalling $6750. Both men with priors, too.
I don’t want to bring up Annesley’s argument that McGuire’s deeds needed to be viewed and treated in isolation, or his astonishing excusing of McGuire’s actions by helpfully explaining one of his attacks on an opponent’s eyes was just a ‘facial’, as opposed to a fully fledged eye gouge. Fair enough – I’m sure the eyes of McGuire’s targets could tell the difference.
With the examples from this season alone, fans start to wonder whether the refereeing fraternity are actually under strong instruction to keep players on the field no matter what. I hate tinfoil-hat conspiracy theories, but the lack of strong on-field response to acts of violence really does feed one.
Last Saturday night in Darwin, Parramatta’s Terepo clouted Canberra’s Rapana with a swinging arm to the head. Terepo was penalised and put on report, Rapana left the field in clear distress for an HIA (Head Injury Assessment).
At the time, Canberra led 12-0, soon to be 16-0. They were forced to reshuffle their right side, which sent John Bateman to the centres and youngster Sebastian Kris to the wing.
In the 15 minutes Rapana was off the field, the Eels scored two tries, one straight through the spot where Bateman would have been. Parra hauled themselves back into the game and went on with it for a much-needed win.
So much for ‘ensuring teams aren’t disadvantaged as a result of foul play’. Even if a player is suspended post-game, his club still plays 17 versus 17 the next week.
Has the game learned nothing from the Sia Soliola-Billy Slater debacle of 2017, where Slater was KO’d by Soliola’s late, high hit? The big man stayed on the field, then was suspended for five games. It was obvious to all that something was wrong then.
What about the repeated late and high hits players like Johnathan Thurston and Geoff Toovey took during their careers?
If in five years time Rapana, or Thurston, Toovey or Slater start to show signs of a brain injury or the effects of concussion, do they have a reasonable case to argue that the NRL didn’t do enough to deter opponents from attacking their heads? That they failed to meet their duty of care to their most valuable assets?
The NRL say their concussion protocols are in line with world’s best practice, and they are once a player is in the HIA process. But without strong, instant, on-field punishment backed by lengthy suspensions, it’s just words.
As it stands, players know if they go high, late or whatever, they’re a chance to take out a key opposition player and at worst they’ll cop is a penalty.
There’s a simple option available to referees to deter a concussion-causing hit like Terepo’s or Soliola’s, they just seem terrified of using it. It doesn’t make any sense.
If the NRL was serious about their duty of care to players, they’d take action to enforce their rules when it matters.