I will be the first to admit, I do not possess the same level of rugby league knowledge as Ricky Stuart.
I never played or coached at the highest level, and I bow to both his incredible achievements, and his depth of understanding of the game.
But I have been watching rugby league for a while – in fact my love of the game began around the same time Ricky switched over from the 15-a-side code – so I think it could be said that, while not at the Stuart level, I do know a little bit about it.
Which is why I have to sadly take issue with the Canberra coach’s declaration that “whoever thinks it’s a spear tackle does not know the game of rugby league”.
Because Ricky: it was a spear tackle.
Let me be perfectly clear: I don’t say it was a spear tackle because I think Nick Cotric intended to seriously injure Tim Lafai. I don’t say it was a spear tackle because I think it was in any way intentional. And I certainly don’t say it was a spear tackle because I think Nick Cotric is a dirty or malicious player.
I say it was a spear tackle because it was a spear tackle: Cotric lifted Lafai, turned him upside down, and dumped him on his head. That’s a spear tackle to me, and it has been since those glory days of the Eighties when both Ricky Stuart and I were new to the game.
But whether you call it a spear tackle isn’t really the point. Whatever terminology you want to use, to tackle someone like that is horribly, terrifyingly dangerous, and the aim of everyone involved with rugby league should be to get to the point where those tackles never happen at all, accidentally or not.
And that’s why referees have to be willing to send players off, and that’s why Nick Cotric needed to be sent off.
I’m going to say again here, this is not because I think Nick Cotric is a bad guy. The most tiresome thing about any controversy regarding foul play, send-offs and suspensions is that whenever a player commits a dangerous act on the field and is rightly called out for it, an army of apologists will rush to his defence, claiming he’s not a dirty player, that foul play isn’t in his game, that he’s a great bloke and does wonderful work for charity and so on.
It’s irritating that this keeps happening, because all that doesn’t matter. To say that a player is guilty of a dangerous tackle is not to say he’s a terrible person. It’s not even to say that he’s an on-field thug.
Good men and clean players have always, on occasion, committed unfortunate deeds on the field, whether by bad luck, bad timing or a rush of blood. The fact they did wrong doesn’t stain their entire character, but neither does their good character excuse them from the consequences of their actions.
In this case, the consequences of Cotric’s actions were a send-off and a three-week suspension, and he’s lucky not to get six.
We know exactly how tackles like Cotric’s can turn out. The dreadful case of Alex MacKinnon is our stark reminder of it. We know that a man can be paralysed for life on the footy field. A man could even die.
We know, too, that other kinds of tackles carry frightening potential consequences. If the sight of players staggering around near-senseless after copping a blow to the head isn’t enough to convince you, the news that the late great Steve Folkes was suffering CTE when he passed away should be.
Rugby league is a dangerous game, a game of violent collisions, but it doesn’t have to be a game of life-altering head and spinal injuries, or a game of reckless disregard for players’ welfare.
That’s why, ideally, we wouldn’t just see the send-off return as an option for referees: we’d see instant dismissal for anyone who attacked the head with a swinging arm or forearm, and anyone who lifted a ball-carrier past the horizontal.
The risks are that serious, and the remedy is that necessary. If players know they’ll spend the rest of the game in the dressing room if they insist on tackling a player such that his feet end up above his head, or swinging their arms around their opponents’ heads, then maybe they’ll stop sailing close to the wind.
If coaches know they’ll be down a man, maybe they’ll issue strict instructions to their men: stay away from the head, and don’t even think about lifting tackles.
It was a spear tackle, Ricky, and the reason your man had to go wasn’t that he’s a bad bloke: it’s that the stakes are too high to let that kind of thing continue.