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Opinion

Coaches will always bend the rules when it comes to injuries

2blues new author
Roar Rookie
25th September, 2021
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(Photo by Matt Roberts/Getty Images)
2blues new author
Roar Rookie
25th September, 2021
8

Last Saturday in the Penrith-Parramatta semi-final, late in the game the Eels were down 8-6 and were building an attack in striking range of the Panthers’ try line.

A Panthers player was down, appearing to have an ankle injury well behind the play. From the sideline, the Panthers’ trainer called to the touch judge to get the referee to stop the game and the referee did.

This is only supposed to happen if there is an obviously serious injury. The Panthers were able to re-organise and had a breather, and the Eels lost momentum.

The Panthers held on to win but were fined for a breach of injury regulations. The trainer was suspended. This didn’t help Parramatta, whose season ended and they felt dudded.

Bryce Cartwright of the Eels looks dejected after defeat as the Panthers celebrate victory.

(Photo by Matt Roberts/Getty Images)

Coaches will always exploit the rules as one did also with injury regulations in 1969. Regulations around injuries have been tightened up since then but coaches always seem to find loopholes.

In the 1969 grand final between Souths and Balmain, there were competitive scrums, four tackles, and one reserve. The game stopped completely for all injuries. The game has changed a lot.

Two proud rugby league clubs representing working-class areas of Sydney clashed in the 1969 NSW Rugby League season decider in front of 58,825 spectators at the Sydney Cricket Ground.

The 1969 season was the third of limited-tackle football. 1967 saw the end of unlimited tackles and the introduction of the four-tackle rule. Teams, players, referees, and fans were still adjusting.

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The South Sydney Rabbitohs, based around Redfern, were NSW Rugby League premiers in 1967 and ’68. They had built a very competitive team through the early ’60s from local juniors and country players.

In 1969 they had 11 players who had represented Australia including John Sattler, John O’Neill, Bob McCarthy, Ron Coote, Denis Pittard, Mike Cleary, and Eric Simms.

They all ran out for the South Sydney Rabbitohs in the NSW Rugby League grand final on Saturday, September 20, 1969. Souths were top of the competition table after the preliminary rounds, earning the minor premiers’ title.

They had beaten Balmain in the semi-final. They were huge favourites, almost certainties.

Their opponents were the Balmain Tigers. Their only Australian representative Arthur Beetson had been sent off the week before and was suspended. They did have an English representative, Dave Bolton, in the halves.

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On one wing was Len Killeen, a South African union player who had played league in England and excelled with his all-around kicking skills. He was able to gain considerable distance from free kicks for touch or in general play and from place goal kicks which also had a good success rate.

The remaining Balmain players were a mixture of experienced first graders, some close to retirement, willing workers, and spirited youngsters. But together they had built a spirited, solid team that had beaten Souths once through the season and finished second after the preliminary rounds.

Generic vintage rugby league or rugby union ball

(Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)

Could the Tigers’ competitive, honest workers match it with Souths’ team of stars in the big match atmosphere of the season decider? It was billed as the team of champions against a champion team. To add to the build-up of interest there was huge money on the result of the game. There have been suggestions this may have influenced the refereeing of the game.

The game was played at a time when teams were only allowed one reserve and once a player went off and the reserve went on no further changes could be made. Games often became a test of endurance and players stayed on the field with injuries, as long as they could stay on their feet and keep their place in the defensive line. There were other differences to present regulations one of which becomes highlighted in this match.

The Tigers led 6-0 at halftime after two penalty goals to Len Killeen and a Dave Bolton field goal, which were two points at the time. Their defence was solid and willing. Souths wouldn’t kick on the last tackle. Maybe they were overconfident and assumed a try was coming.

Their sets often ended being held on the last tackle, resulting in a scrum, which at the time were competitive – forwards pushed, and hookers struck for the ball with their feet. Props jostled for strategic advantages. Scrums occasionally erupted with fists flying. Balmain were winning the scrums through the skills of their young hooker Peter Boulton.

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Early in the second half, Souths dropped the ball, Balmain gathered and scored in the corner in the next few plays. Tries were three points to make it 9-0. Balmain defended well for the remainder of the game and finished the stronger of the two teams. Toward the end of the game when Souths looked to be building an attack, Balmain players often went to the ground appearing injured.

Different rules at the time required the game to be stopped for injuries – while the injured player was attended to and was able to get up and resume play, or had to be taken off. Many thought the amount of Balmain players going to the ground was a deliberate ploy. Souths became more frustrated and desperate as the game continued often arguing with the referee about the number of stoppages due to Balmain injuries.

The referee could do nothing under the existing rules. Rugby league injury protocols have changed in many ways. Many critics claim the Tigers were the better team on the day, but the match has become known as the ‘lay down grand ginal’ from the amount of Balmain injuries and resulting stoppages during the latter stages of the second half. The final score was Balmain 11, Souths 2.

Balmain became 1969 premiers. It was to be their last. Over the next few years, further success eluded them through injuries and players moving on. They made grand finals in 1988 and ’89 but lost both. The 1988 grand final was another classic but that’s another story. They merged with the Wests Magpies in the 1990s.

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Benny Elias

(Photo by Getty Images)

Balmain players and coach Leo Nosworthy, who passed away earlier this year, have since admitted attempting to slow the game down, feigning injuries in the second half.

Souths had tremendous attacking ability with so many top-quality players. The Tigers wanted to prevent them from gaining attacking momentum. All’s fair, so the saying goes.

South Sydney went on to premierships in 1970 and ’71. After that their stars gradually retired or were lured to other clubs for better money.

Financial problems set in for many years. They were dropped from the competition in the late 1990s and had to fight a long and difficult battle to return. They had to wait until 2014 for further premiership success.

Injuries and trainers. Back to 2021.

Where to from here for the NRL with injuries and trainers?

Trainers can’t be left with the powers and rights they have at present. The 2019 grand final was marred by trainer involvement.

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Fines are probably not enough of a deterrent for trainers playing around with the rules, particularly in big games. Could salary cap penalties succeed as a deterrent?

Scott Sorensen of the Panthers leaves the field

(Photo by Matt Roberts/Getty Images)

Player welfare is a prime consideration. When an injury takes place in the area where play is taking place it seems a straightforward decision – play needs to be suspended while the injury is attended to.

Problems arise when a player goes down and appears injured but play has moved on and the injured player is far enough out of the immediate playing area to not be considered a problem.

Normally the trainer goes on to assess and possibly provide some treatment.

However, if the injury is serious, what are the protocols? Who assesses seriousness and decides at what stage the game needs to be stopped – after assessing the player on-field or from the sideline? It has been shown trainers can’t be left with these decisions.

Would a neutral medical official on the sidelines be part of an answer?

In the Penrith versus Eels situation, a neutral medical person could have assessed and controlled the situation and determined whether the injury needed stopping the game from the sideline or the trainer going on to assist the player was appropriate action at that stage.

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