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Be careful what you wish for when it comes to high contact

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Roar Guru
18th September, 2020
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High contact in rugby league has spawned controversy for as long as the game has existed.

Aside from the more outrageous incidents like the John Hopoate flying elbow on Keith Galloway, which rightfully saw him rubbed out of the game, mostly the controversy has come from either referees missing the high contact or inconsistent interpretations from referees on how the contact is adjudicated.

Similar incidents across the same weekend or even in the same game can leave fans and commentators furious.

More recently this year, the sin binning of players has brought his to the forefront.

I have been critical of referees for a long time for their under-use of the sin bin and the send off, going back to a famous incident in State of Origin – the Paul Gallen versus Nate Myles fight that resulted in the banning of the punch and automatic sin bin.

There was a swinging arm from Paul Gallen that resulted in a heavy forearm to Nate Myles’ face in the lead-up. Any watcher, no matter if they bled blue or maroon, would most likely judge the swinging forearm as intentional.

Only the most one-eyed NSW fan could even bring the interpretation down from intentional to reckless. Either way, the result should have seen Gallen marched from the field. The only argument was for how long.

The sin-binning of Jaydn Su’A on Thursday night has brought this up again and inspired an article from The Roar’s own Scott Pryde. I write this not to defend the Su’A high tackle in general because I honestly sit on the fence with it. I haven’t been able to see enough angles of the tackle to make up my mind but there are mitigating factors.

Jaydn Su'A

Jaydn Su’A sparked more debate around the high tackle. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

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I have a problem with Scott’s interpretation of the rules, in particular this quote.

“The bottom line is that it’s up to the defender alone to avoid contact with the head of an attacking player. If the attacking player slips, that isn’t his fault, but in an era where the dangers of concussion and head knocks are far more well known, the NRL’s policy on this sort of play and using the sin bin as a deterrent is spot on.”

I take exception to the first sentence in this paragraph. Yes, this same line has been regurgitated from referees and administrators for a number of years now.

But the rule book says the following: “When affecting or attempting to affect a tackle makes contact with the head or neck of an opponent intentionally, recklessly or carelessly”.

Whoever put that wording into the rugby league laws was a smart person because it clearly allows for the reality that the defender is not in control of 100 per cent of the contact. There are other factors at play other than what the defender does.

Just to name a few, the actions of the attacking player in the split second before contact, the actions of other defenders and attacking players, and the conditions that all are playing in.

To take it to the extreme with an unlikely but possible scenario, an attacking player could realise they have misjudged or have not seen a defender come out of the line, attempt to stop to reduce the impact speed and lose their footing. The tackler could be bent over as far as he can with shoulder height at 50 centimetres above the ground, arms wrapping, head down, and has already launched into the contact when the defender slips (or drops his body height).

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At the point where the tackler launches and has no further control over the height of the contact, no one can seriously say that the tackler is intentional, reckless or careless in his attempt to execute the tackle. Yet contact with the head still happens.

While this is an extreme example, variations of similar sporting incidents happen every year to differing degrees. If we had the benefit of pictures or slow motion video I could illustrate this point better, from the Dylan Napa hit on Korbin Sims a few years back to Waqa Blake’s hit on Kalyn Ponga this year.

With both of those examples, a case could be made that there was a degree of carelessness from the defender. A case can not be made that the defender had 100 per cent control over the point of impact. In both cases the ball runner lowered their body height after the defender launched into their hit. Had that not happened, high contact would not have been made.

We have rules in the rule book for two reasons. Firstly, so that the intent of how the game is to be played is followed and secondly to attempt to ensure that player safety is maintained.

But rules have to be written in such a way that gives everyone the possibility of following them, as every individual can only control their own actions. The rules have to allow for a player that attempts to do everything right but finds himself in circumstances outside of his control.

The accidental offside rule is a perfect example of this. If a decoy runner gets in front of a ball player only for the ball runner to kick the ball into him, a scrum is awarded to the opposition team. Yet if the decoy runner intentionally touches the ball in an offside position the opposition gets a penalty. The accidental offside acknowledges that the person in an offside position doesn’t have control over the circumstances that disadvantaged the opposition. Rightfully we have allowed for nuance in circumstances here.

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Ashley Klein

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Similarly, we acknowledge that jumping in the air to take a bomb is a risky activity. If an attacking or defending player has eyes only for the ball and the resulting contact of players in the air puts another in a dangerous position, we don’t penalise the other player if his sole intention was to catch the ball. Yet one of those two players could easily end up in an inverted position and break their necks.

We understand that this is part of the game and accidents happen. We don’t judge the result but the intention of the players. But as long as the intent of the player is to catch the ball and they don’t do something intentional, reckless or careless we notch it up as an accident and move on. We respect that both players have a right to jump for the ball to catch it. Arguably this scenario could end up being more harmful than a tackle.

Yet when it comes to the tackle, we want to throw away such nuance.

By accepting and repeating the line about the defender’s responsibility that we have heard trotted out by referees, administrators and slowly but surely some commentators, we remove the nuance that was allowed for when the rules were worded with intentional, reckless or careless.

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As it stands, a player could play the game with 100 per cent respect for the rules, not be intentional, reckless or careless, hit at a height that would contact an upright player in the hips or stomach and find themselves off the field.

By the sounds of it, we are loosely interpreting anything that contacts the head as at least careless. If we keep going down this slippery slope then we could find ourselves with a set of rules so rigid on tackling heights or contact, that the game we love will look nothing like it does today.

What’s next? Take the perfect rugby league tackle as an example. Think of Nigel Plum or event today’s Jake Trbojevic with some of the most pure tackling techniques around. A standard hip-height hit and drive – if done effectively enough – can invert an attacker backwards at such a pace that his head hits the ground before the upper body does. We’ve all seen it. Yet today we applaud such a tackle because of its violence as much as its difficulty to achieve on a moving player.

Will we find ourselves watching rugby league in the future with talking heads discussing the responsibility of the defender to avoid contact with the head?

Be careful what you wish for. Because if you want this game to have a future that looks even remotely like it does today, you can only make rules that can be reasonably complied with.

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