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The Roar

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Opinion

Wanna stay on the field? Don’t hit a player in the head

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Expert
16th May, 2021
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Rugby league has a great track record for overreaction and hysteria, but it’ll be tough to top what we saw over the weekend for Magic Round.

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a collection of sooky, moaning Chicken Little types screaming about how yet again the NRL was dead as player after player found themselves on report or riding the pine for making contact with an opponent above the shoulders.

These were the very same people who the week before were crying and screaming the NRL was dead because referees didn’t punish foul play strongly enough on the field.

You can’t have both.

Anyone who portends to love rugby league must understand the game has no choice but to change how it treats high contact. Protecting players as well as they can from the long-term effects of head hits should be priorities one, two and three for NRL HQ.

Sitili Tupouniua of the Roosters

Sitili Tupouniua before being sin-binned. (Photo by Albert Perez/Getty Images)

Anyone who reads these on Mondays also knows I’m no fan of Peter V’landys, but I back him and the ARL Commission 100 per cent on this.

What I won’t back though is the total and utter shitshow the NRL made of the announcement. Emailing an update to clubs literally hours before Round 10 games kicked off is amateur stuff.

For all the talk from his boosters about how amazing V’landys is, what’s constantly amazing to fans is seeing how he and NRL CEO Andrew Abdo manage to oversee an administration that would be outshined by the secretary of the local netball league.

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Through Abdo, V’landys and head of football Graham Annesley, the NRL had been vaguely hinting at more send-offs and sin-bins for weeks, but they waited until Round 10 and the eve of the regular season’s centrepiece to formalise something.

This approach to high contact is something that should have been made clear in the off-season to allow teams to train their tackle technique to make sure 13 players stay on the field for 80 minutes.

We now have the inevitable cries for ‘consistency’ about the level of contact resulting in a player sent to the bench or allowed to continue. Like most things, this debate will likely depend on the team of the player who got hit or is being punished.

The consistency is in the directive itself:

“Any forceful contact with the head or neck of an opponent may result in players being sent to the sin-bin or permanently dismissed from the field. Minimal contact may still see players placed on report or sin-binned if the referee is in any doubt.”

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There it is in black and white – hit a player’s neck or head, take a seat. Hit the middle or take the legs, and you’re all good. Simple.

There’s nothing about incidental contact, a player falling forwards, if a player didn’t mean it or if Gus Gould thinks there’s nothing in it.

Canberra coach Ricky Stuart in his post-match presser suggested punishing high contact like this will “give a leg up to other codes”.

I love Rick, but with all respect this is laughable.

Outside of combat fighters, I don’t know many athletes who shop around the codes looking for one that is all good with letting them get hit in the head.

Rugby, Australian rules, netball and even cricket have introduced strong concussion protocols and rules to deal with high contact, which can include send-offs or suspensions. If anything, trying to act tough has left rugby league lagging behind.

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V’landys for his part has made strong pronouncements about short-term pain for long-term gain, saying, “It will kill the game if we don’t get tough on foul play and particularly contact with the head.”

Then he had a classic bob each way, telling 2GB radio over the weekend the referees “have been a bit overconscientious in the enforcement of it, but we’ll get the balance right”.

He couldn’t help himself but hang the referees, the same people he’d less than 24 hours earlier had instructed to enforce this directive.

Let’s get one thing straight. Seeing a whole team’s worth of players get sin-binned and three sent off is going to be good for rugby league in the long term.

Players can adjust pretty quickly and fans will adjust quickly, just like they did during the great refereeing crackdown of 2018 which rewarded teams who played open, expansive football and punished those trying to slow things down.

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If anything comes of this, it should be a review of the six again rules to give players a break from the speed of a game which is clearly affecting them, to move away from the obsession with ‘fatigue’ and to improve tackle technique and defensive decision-making.

The question now is: will V’landys have the grit Todd Greenberg didn’t in 2018 when he squibbed it in the face of fierce criticism?

All the fawning coverage of the ARLC chair keeps saying V’landys doesn’t care what people think. This will certainly put this to the test.

”This isn’t the game I played,” wail heroes of yesteryear. And they’re right. That’s the entire point.

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