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Opinion

Have the NRL’s new rules created injury havoc?

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Expert
28th March, 2021
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Cronulla were valiant on Saturday night against Parramatta. They’re a proud club that fight every game to the end and are a credit to their coach John Morris.

But after copping a bunch of injuries and having no fit players left on the bench, they pretty much had one hand tied behind their back. It’s a miracle the Sharks hung tough like they did until they conceded three tries in the last 11 minutes, which made the scoreboard look worse than it should have.

The Sharks were already going to do it tough against a team with premiership aspirations. They had zero chance after losing so many players.

Earlier on Saturday, Canberra led New Zealand 31-10 with 35 minutes to go but had just one fit bench player, no spare forwards and two busted centres playing through injury on the field. The Warriors would get the win if they kept their heads and that’s what happened.

It’s incredibly bad luck that injuries have effectively cost two teams a fair chance in games that will prove crucial at the business end of the season.

Now as the dust settles on Round 3, we’ve got 22 players injured to varying degrees and some huge potential impacts on premiership contenders.

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Regular Monday readers will know I don’t need an invitation to rip into Peter V’landys and NRL head office for their lack of care towards the players, and this issue is teed right up for someone who would say this spate of hurt players is because the NRL introduced new rules at the whim of broadcasters and dinosaurs to speed up the game and increase fatigue in a misguided attempt to bring late-game ‘excitement’ from players who are already knackered after their shortest pre-season ever.

ARLC Chairman Peter V’landys

(Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Tempting as it is to take that whack, it’ll have to wait a little bit, because we should be equally wary of using a sample size of one as a definitive predictor of what we’re going to get in the future.

As it’s been said, Round 3’s injury toll was well above average. According to Twitter’s wonderful @NRLPhysio Brien Seeney, there were seven concussions in 24 hours alone on Friday and Saturday. That’s almost double the usual concussions for a round (3.5).

That led to some idiotic commentary over the last 48 hours bemoaning the fact the NRL and its doctors have ‘been tough’ on head knocks and concussion by keeping players off the field – that’s exactly what should be happening.

And the sight of empty benches at Canberra and Bankwest Stadium has heightened calls for an 18th player substitute for injured players, probably the most significantly from the Rugby League Player’s Association.

RLPA head Clint Newton spoke to the Daily Telegraph about his Association’s concerns.

“We understand we’re in the entertainment industry but we’re also in the human being industry… we can’t have players exposed like they are at the moment,” he said.

“The concerns on player health and safety outweigh debate about the challenges and complexities of having an 18th man. It’s got to happen now.

“I want to make it clear that the introduction of an 18th man doesn’t eliminate all our current concerns but it would reduce pressure on players in the interim until we work through the impact of these new rules with more data”.

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So are the new rules and ‘V’landys ball’ responsible for Round 3’s injury festival? Is this the natural endgame of the NRL’s apparent disregard for the health of their players? The honest answer is that it’s too soon to know.

Newton’s last sentence makes the key point. If you go through all Round 3’s injuries individually, there’s mitigating circumstances for almost all of them unrelated to fatigue and/or a game that’s too fast. There’s just not enough of a sample size yet to be able to correlate the impact of the new rules on the number of injuries.

Rumblings the NRL will introduce the 18th man this week as an in-season rule change should be applauded – even though it wouldn’t have saved Cronulla (or maybe Canberra) on the weekend.

Phil Gould thinks the situation is down to poor tackling techniques and an “obsession with quick play-the-balls”.

Plenty of others think this is the natural result of a collision sport played too fast with no stoppages for players to catch their breath.

Are there really no opportunities for players to rest though? According to data from The Rugby League Eye Test, one of several independent publishers producing analysis light years ahead of the NRL’s official outlets, there’s been no significant variation in time the ball is in play over the last few years.

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Of course it’s early and things might change, but right now we can only go with what we can measure.

So we have to wait and see. But if injury rates keep rising and critical players like Luke Keary keep going down with long-term injuries, the NRL will have no choice but to revisit their off-season flight of fancy.

No one wants games to be decided by injury. No one wants their team’s short-term and long-term outlook to be wrecked by a long injury list. And if the broadcasters need some convincing to wind things back, you can guarantee no one will stay on the channel to watch a lopsided contest.

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