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If you think rugby league’s ‘gone soft’, you’re wrong

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Expert
20th August, 2019
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A few things have blown up this week in the wake of Tevita Pangai Junior’s five-match suspension which all but ended his season.

With just seconds left in last Friday’s game against the Panthers, the Broncos forward tackled Penrith five-eighth James Maloney and slung him to the ground.

Pangai Jnr then launched himself on top of Maloney, basically body slamming his 113 kilos across Maloney’s head, neck and right shoulder as the latter was seated on the turf.

Aside from the dangerous aspect of the play, it was completely unnecessary because Brisbane led 24-12 and the game was well and truly decided.

Now Pangai is suspended for the third time this season and Brisbane’s finals chances have taken a big hit. If the Broncos do make the final eight, they’ll need to reach a preliminary final if he is to play again in 2019.

Plenty have tried to wave this off as an accident or argue the suspension was harsh because there was no harmful intent, but the Tongan wrecking ball made the decision to tackle Maloney in that fashion and that put him at risk. It’s simple. Whether Maloney was actually injured or not is completely irrelevant.

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Pangai himself said it was an accident but he accepted the judiciary had “made the right call”.

To clarify a few misconceptions floating around the place, Pangai was not suspended for five games for this offence on its own. For the act itself, he was charged with grade two dangerous contact which carried a three-week suspension. Because he’d already had three offences in two years, there were carry-over points which added a week.

With a four-week holiday looming you’d think Brisbane would cut their losses, but for some mind-boggling reason they fronted the judiciary trying to get the original charge downgraded to one rather than two.

Remember, this was a 6’2, 113 kilo forward diving onto the head and neck of an opponent half a foot shorter, 30 kilos lighter and who was sitting on the ground. The potential for injury was huge and Maloney is lucky he didn’t cop something bad.

James Maloney of the Panthers

James Maloney (AAP Image/Michael Chambers)

If you needed a video example of a crusher tackle, this is the one.

Less than five minutes on Tuesday night is all it took for the judiciary to dismiss the appeal and Pangai had an extra-points penalty applied, taking him to the total five-game suspension.

This all happened in the shadow of Phil Gould’s latest rant following the Brisbane-Penrith game.

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Referring to the NRL, Gould said, “They don’t want any intimidation in the game, they don’t want any aggression”, and “there seems to be this belief that if we start penalising everything, suspending everything, that suddenly we won’t have aggression, we won’t have anger on the field, we won’t have injuries”.

“I don’t agree with it. I think the game should be about intimidation and the game should be about aggression, and you’re going to sail close to the wind,” Gould said.

Then came the now famous “Doctors and lawyers will end the game in 20 years” line in response to being asked what the NRL would look like going forward.

In Gould’s world, ‘intimidation’ and ‘aggression’ seems to mean dirty and dangerous play – and in this sense, he’d be right.

Cronulla captain Paul Gallen said his piece too, “The people who run the game need to be very careful that they’re not messing with the fabric of the game.”

Paul Gallen Sharks

Sharks captain Paul Gallen. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

The comments brought out a stack of the usual ‘rugby league’s gone soft’ and ‘let players punch each other’ types who prefer a running brawl to a skilled, fast game.

Rugby league is a pretty straightforward game. You get six tackles to ground the ball over your opponent’s try line, they get six tackles to do it back to you. If you do it more than them, you’ll probably win.

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These days the typical NRL player is bigger, much faster, stronger, more trained and more skilled than a lot (not all) of those who came before.

Players are expected to have elite fitness levels and the collisions carry more impact than ever. There’s nothing ‘soft’ about it. The intimidation and aggression Gould laments is evident in every hit. You can dominate your opponent physically without choosing to dive onto his neck – in fact, Pangai had literally just thrown Maloney around like a rag doll. That’s fairly dominant.

If punishing players who attack an opponent’s head means the game’s gone soft, then there are some seriously misguided opinions out there.

If trying to protect players from foul play and stopping the dirty acts that put rugby league’s reputation in the toilet is messing with the fabric of the game, that’s an even stupider take on things.

I grew up in the era of league players punching on, eye-gouging, fihh-hooking, squirrel-gripping, jaw-breaking, kneeing, headhunting, face-raking and head-slamming – just for starters. Before those days it was even worse.

This used to be accepted as part of the game, now it isn’t. And neither should it be. If that’s the way you want your sport played then you’ve got the wrong idea about what sport actually is.

During his Friday night diatribe, Gould posed an interesting question: “I want to know what they think the finished product looks like, I want to know what the NRL thinks is the pure game of rugby league.”

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I’m no highly paid sports administrator, but I daresay the NRL wants the game to be the one that was the No.1 rating sport on television in 2018. The one that highlights the action and huge (legal) hits to showcase our elite league to the world.

The NRL is constantly under attack from those who want it to go back to what they were comfortable with, from people terrified of change. The game is evolving physically and tactically each year and these folks can’t keep up. They’re still applying old thinking from when they played or they just can’t disconnect from the ideal stuck in their head of what the game ‘used to be’.

The game’s never been better to watch. It’s bloody hard on the players. And only the dinosaurs pine for the good old days of blokes punching each other.