It’s been another off-season from hell for the NRL, although this year the bad-news stories are the kind that head office would almost be happy about.
The 2020 NRL season is not far away and soon we’ll be watching players reel back in a tackle then hold their face after wearing a forearm to the head.
It may be the first contact or the second or third tackling effort, it doesn’t matter, the ball carrier is just as likely to get a broken nose.
“Just a part of the game,” says the commentator. “There was no intention to strike the head,” you’ll hear repeatedly. “Very unfortunate, but when you hold the ball that high, there is always the chance of the tackler’s arm bouncing up into your head,” they’ll say, partly blaming the ball carrier for being smacked in the mouth by the tackler.
Or how about “But he was falling a little, so the tackler surely can’t be penalised; we’ll go to an ad break while the doctor is on the field,” as the tackled player surveys his face for an eye socket injury.
In the USA the degenerative brain disease Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) has been linked to repeated instances of concussion. The University of Sydney Brain and Medical Centre announced that signs of CTE had been found in the donated brains of two former NRL players who had played over 150 NRL games (including Bulldog legend Steve Folkes).
These brains were significantly different from the other 1000 brains that the investigating doctor, Associate Professor Michael Buckland had studied.
A related article from news.com from June 27, 2019 titled ‘Groundbreaking discovery in NRL brain disease crisis’ stated that “The only known risk factor for CTE is repeated concussions and blows that don’t cause signs or symptoms”. Every head knock, even the minor ones that are common in any NRL game, potentially contribute to a CTE outcome.
With that in mind, shouldn’t the NRL and Todd Greenberg be doing everything possible to limit the risk of head contact for any reason?
To its credit, the NRL introduced head injury guidelines as far back as 2014 and has since developed the current Head Injury Assessment (HIA) Protocol. But the HIA is a tool for the assessment of a player after the head knock has been sustained.
Wouldn’t it be far better to look at the reasons for the head injury in the first place, and address that?
You don’t have to look very far to realise that a fair percentage of head knocks arise from a tackle where the defender’s forearm comes in contact with the ball carrier’s head. Why does this happen as often as it does?
If you want to see how league can be played, it’s worthwhile watching boys’ high school matches as well as the NRLW. Here you will notice that the frequency of a forearm striking a head is significantly lower.
I believe that this is because the players have not yet been exposed to coaching that includes the technique of using the swinging arm as the normal way to tackle.
The swinging arm has become the norm because of its effectiveness. It is a very effective enforcement tool and an efficient mechanism for knocking the ball from the arm of the ball carrier. I call it an enforcement tool because it is clearly not used to affect a tackle, but rather it’s used to injure and physically intimidate an opponent.
A hard-swung arm connected to a very strong 100 kg male is a very potent firearm.
It is not a natural action to swing your forearm when trying to stop an attacker’s progress, the natural action is to grab, hold and wrestle to the ground.
The obvious solution is to ban the swinging arm. I’ve watched and enjoyed league for many years, but I’m not a tragic, and I think that such a ban is quite acceptable. I can imagine that the old brigade who lovelLeague partly because it’s so hard would be vehemently against the proposal.
They would argue that the game has been softened enough and the rules changed too often. But what is the priority, the retention of the macho NRL image or the long-term health of the players?
Would it be too hard to stop defenders swinging their arm? I don’t think so – if the rule change was communicated and introduced during the preseason, I think players could adapt. Naturally, there would be confusion and interpretation issues, but surely that is a price worth paying.
A swinging arm could be regarded the same as an intentional hand on the ball, which could incur a ‘six more’ call, and not disrupt the flow of play.
Repeated offences could see the defending team marched ten metres, then finally penalised. Whether or not such an application is workable I am willing for others to discuss. No doubt there will be objections to the swinging arm ban, let alone how you might apply such a rule.
The NRL has the responsibility to provide the safest possible workplace, a very difficult task in such a heavy contact sport. Good steps have been taken with the HIA but surely the NRL must be proactive to reduce the instances of HIAs being required and ban the swinging arm outright.