No-one in rugby league talks sense like Peter Sterling.
As if 228 games for Parramatta, 13 State of Origin matches for New South Wales and 18 Tests for Australia wasn’t enough, Sterling’s post-retirement career as a media commentator has been notable for his consistently insightful, reasoned analysis.
Sterling has always stood out from the crowd, and now, on the red-hot issue of concussion in rugby league, ‘Sterlo’ is once again setting himself apart from many of his contemporaries.
He’s not an easy man to catch. With a calendar chock-full of charity events, golf days, and TV and radio commentary duties, Nine’s recent digital hacking scare also relieved him of his phone for a few days. But eventually the stars aligned and Sterling generously found time to discuss the concussion issue, in depth, exclusively with The Roar.
He begins by providing context about his decision to donate his brain to concussion researchers:
“I felt that I owed the game to contribute something back, to help make rugby league better, bigger and stronger in the future. It really wasn’t a difficult decision. As many have told me, it’s only a small donation, but if players of the future benefit from it, then I’m very happy to do it.”
We separate incidences of concussion into two broad groups: injuries to players making tackles, and injuries to victims of foul play. The former throws up some interesting insights.
“I don’t like the evolution in the way tackles have progressed to the point where everybody goes in high and holds high. But these days, the way the game is played, it’s actually a disservice to tackle low,” he says.
“There’s no great reward for a legs tackle, in fact it isn’t considered dominant, which only allows for a faster play the ball, with the tackler struggling to get back to marker. Every tackle has its own time-frame, and it would be great if we could get referees, coaches and players to understand that better, when it comes to legs tackles.
“I’d love to think that rugby league could rid itself of the high wrestling, get fewer players standing upright in the contact areas, going in lower and so on. But at the moment, how you win football games is by dominating the ruck area, controlling the speed of the game.”
A case in point is the recent concussion suffered by Newcastle’s Kurt Mann.
St George Illawarra’s Mikaele Ravalawa ran the ball to the defence at high speed, where he was confronted by no fewer than four Newcastle defenders, all entering the collision area upright.
There is little good that can come of this situation; it is akin to a car crash test. Given the velocity and the proximity of heads and shoulders converging to a single point, the only surprising thing about this incident is that just Mann was concussed.
Concussions in these circumstances are routinely described as ‘accidental’, although perhaps more correctly, as a result of players not being encouraged to tackle low, are they better described as accidents waiting to happen?
“Even with low tackles, we can never eliminate the risk of concussion,” Sterlo says. “You can’t legislate for poor technique.”
But Sterling offers an interesting perspective with respect to how a change of emphasis might come about, saying, “If we go back to the wrestle and how that was orchestrated and became part of the game, if it’s possible to come up with a plan to introduce a style of tackle that changes how the game is played in that way, then it should be possible to come up with a plan to ensure that we encourage players to tackle in a way that makes the game safer.”
Also falling into the ‘accidental’ category are concussions incurred at training.
“I agree with James Graham,” says Sterling, “who made a salient point about the need to look more closely at the way players train. The adage has always been, ‘you train as you play’, so obviously it makes little sense to put measures in place on-field, without doing more to minimise head contact off the field.”
With respect to foul play, Sterling is encouraged by the shift to harsher penalties for attacking the head of an opponent, although he notes, “I’m in the camp that would like to see those punishments made heavier.”
But, citing recent cases where players like Felise Kaufusi, Cody Walker and Andrew Fifita escaped with little or no suspension, I ask if things really are getting tougher, or are we just being told they’re getting tougher?
“I think there are anomalies, and it’s true that we’re being sent mixed messages,” Sterling agrees.
“Overall, the punishments are too lenient. I think that the inconsistency irks the rugby league public, and I don’t think there’s any doubt that we need to get harsher, so that we make the head an absolute no-go zone.”
Sterling isn’t about to dump on any of his colleagues in media roles, but I ask him if rugby league is ready to move on culturally from commentators joking about or downplaying head-high contact?
“I don’t think it has a choice,” he says. “Things are so much different now in all areas of society and life, and we have to move with that. Rugby league can still be gladiatorial and physical, and we can retain the fabric of the game, but within all of that we must adapt.
“We still need the game to appeal to mums and dads of six and seven year-old kids, so they will encourage them to play rugby league. But they’ll only do so if they believe the game is safe. In this respect, it’s obvious that concerns around concussion are only going to become more pronounced and more significant.”
Cultural change is a topic that Sterling is happy to expand upon:
“I think we’re learning on the run a bit, but we need to be learning very quickly. We certainly need to be taking notice of all the best medical advice, and if we have international concussion experts [Dr Chris Nowinski] telling us that there are concerns around how the NRL is defining and reporting concussion, then we need to be taking notice of that.
“The other battle we have is safeguarding the players themselves. The mentality of ‘I’m ok’ or ‘just let me go’ has been the culture and outlook of players since 1908. It’s ingrained. So we need to find a way to take those things out of the hands of players as much as possible.”
Notably, just three days after our discussion, leading rugby league identity Phil Gould and recently retired player and TV commentator Paul Gallen discussed the same issue on the Nine network, with Gould insisting, on behalf of players, “Why are they protecting us when we don’t want to be protected? We don’t need to be protected.”
I query Sterling as to differences between rugby league and AFL, where there is far more willingness on the part of ex-AFL players to join legal action to seek compensation for concussion related injuries, which has to date confounded lawyers looking to launch class actions against the NRL.
His response is one that all rugby league fans can relate to: “We’ve always looked at toughness, team loyalty, and loyalty to the game as such admirable qualities. It’s difficult to be critical of that because I’d like to think that’s how I was. There aren’t many places in life where you can forge bonds with like-minded people, where you share a deep, genuine fellowship that sticks with you, no matter what else happens.
“So, in that sense, it’s not a surprise that players and ex-players are protective of the game.”
Which brings us back to the dilemma that faces rugby league. Is being ‘protective’ of the game through resistance to change, more harmful to the game in the long run? Sterling’s response, as ever, is thoughtful and considered:
“A lot of the decisions we are making, about how we play the game, are going to be put to the test more and more, just because of the very nature of the sport. It’s a tough balancing act because we don’t want to see rugby league changed too much, even though we know it has to change.
“We all fear that we’re headed down a litigious path, and fear the dire consequences that could have, so I think that anything we can do to control our own destiny, to make some of the changes ourselves, where we can retain the essence of our game, so that we’re not forced to make changes that are detrimental to the sport, then we should be looking to do that.
“If not, I fear that there’ll be legislation forced upon us, that does it for us.”
In an environment where commentators and ex-players – people of influence – have been slow to grasp the seriousness of the concussion problem, or are paying lip service to it, Sterling’s position is a beacon of light.
If the NRL is genuinely serious about effecting change in rugby league, and bringing fans and participants along for the ride, they would do well to ensure that Sterling’s voice is heard loudly and clearly.