Finals fever gets to everyone – even rugby league’s head coaches. If you’re strong enough, you can make a decision for your team. Sometimes it pays off and sometimes it doesn’t.
There’s no better feeling. After a few barging hit-ups down the guts by the men in the middle, you get inside the opponent’s 30-metre line.
Second phase play.
The centre draws the opposing number and passes out to the fullback who, under the pressure of the last edge defender, bats it onto an unmarked winger.
With about four meters of space to work in, the winger takes a huge first few steps, and with a scrambling fullback defender, the winger leaps forward with the intention of touching down the ball and having enough time to complete the forward flip, head over legs.
For that split second, suspended in the air, everybody holds their breath.
Ball down. The crowd goes wild. Cue fistbumps, handshakes, bear hugs, woooos, and hair ruffling.
Ah, pure poetry. Bodies in motion, fast hands, pinpoint hand-eye coordination and supernatural vision.
Rugby league encapsulated with a cherry on top.
But lately, I have found myself, holding my breath for a different reason.
I hold my breath because of fear.
Every time I see one of those wingers take the leap of faith, I grimace.
I grimace because, as the jumper (or gymnast), when you take that leap, you leave the rugby league realm of control.
You no longer exist in the world where rugby league rules. Now, you have chosen to test physics.
The winger somersault sure is a spectacular part of the game.
At some stage, it became somewhat fashionable for a winger not just to put the ball over the line, but to also look good while doing it too.
Evolving from the body-is-out-of-touch-but-still-in-the-air-with-just-wrist-in-play dive, it has become increasingly common for wingers to straight-out jump over people.
Perhaps this has developed as a response to increased horizontal defensive line speeds. Or perhaps the game has gotten more entertaining. A natural stylistic progression.
Alas, the somersault is a high-risk, high-reward, all-in play.
In the air, these players are exposed and incredibly vulnerable to having their legs and lower body impacted by scrambling defenders. It’s difficult to blame committed defenders coming across in cover at speed who have legitimate intentions in order to save a try.
Where that player ends up is anyone’s guess. Or more importantly, where that player’s neck, cranium and spine ends up is anyone’s guess.
An example of this happened to young Xavier Coates earlier this year in the 31st minute of the Round 1 clash with the Eels.
In the clear, Coates goes to elevate, Clint Guterson comes across in a regulation sliding save (wasn’t illegal) collects the winger, and Coates leap, impeded by Gutho is altered in a way that the young winger ends up on his face with sickening impact to his head and neck.
(Starts at 1:15)
(For reference, Coates did this earlier in the game (0:30) when it was completely unnecessary.)
It’s a scary look, and it could so easily happen to anyone considering the angle of impact and the leap itself.
Once the players’ feet leave the ground, they have few mechanisms to control the impacts on their bodies and the fashion in which they land on the ground.
The brief shuffle of the centre of gravity and weight in the body can’t be used to advantage if the player is not ‘earthed’ so to speak.
It’s a similar principle to the ‘man-in-the-air’ rule.
You can’t attack a player’s legs while he is in the air, because there is a fair chance you could jolt them into a dangerous position, in which the player could land on their back or neck.
From a quick perusal of the NRL rules of 2020, there is no protection in the rules for a player who jumps to score a try from having their legs taken out by a defender.
It only states that a player cannot be contacted when fielding a kick.
And as mentioned before, it’s quite difficult to argue that say, Gutherson in the example before, could have pulled out of his action in the split seconds before Coates’ leap.
It’s fair to say that it’s a real grey area in the laws of rugby league and an aspect of the game that has since escaped scrutiny from a rather dynamic, hands-on administrator who has a habit of chopping and changing things.
Now I don’t necessarily think that the wingers’ somersault should be banned. But eventually, the act of leaving your feet to score a try with the ball in hand (not for a kick, pass etc) will be rubbed from the game.
It troubles me to think about it, but what if an NRL player, or an impressionable junior, seriously injures his/her head, neck, or spine attempting one of these acrobatic finishes?
It only takes 1 incident for the whole thing to blow up – a league-wide, soul-searching conversation to be had, and then an eventual solution in banning the move.
Whilst I thoroughly enjoy the entertainment value that the ‘wingers’ somersault’ gives to the game, I sincerely hope that we don’t have to have the conversation in the first place.
So enjoy it while it lasts for it won’t be around much longer.