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The Roar


Tackling head knocks head-on: dealing with concussions requires leadership not politics

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Roar Guru
14th September, 2022

The NRL is “getting tough” on head knocks and concussions by ensuring the victims of high tackles and illegal play are taken out of the game.

Meanwhile, the guys dish the stuff out – and more importantly, the guys who dish it out – get hit with a feather duster.

It’s clear the NRL views suspensions as damaging its product. There’s a certain (flawed) logic to it. Short suspensions (1-2 weeks) have become fines. Mid-term suspensions (3-4 weeks) have become short and long-term suspensions (5 weeks +) only happen to nobody players from battling clubs.

I’m as old school (dinosaur) a fan as there is. I’d love it if head injuries weren’t a thing and we could see players with a wobbly boot, getting back up and making a heroic play two minutes later. I love the crime and retribution element of big men going hammer and tongs. I’d love to see games like Sunday’s Souths v Easts devolve into running brawls.

But I love footy more and that’s just not our reality anymore.

“Doctors and lawyers will ruin our game.” Maybe, but we’re making it pretty easy for them.

Peter V’Landys is nothing if not a politician. That was great for the NRL when we needed someone to deal with governments to get the game restarted through COVID-19. Unfortunately, most politicians are extremely short-term focused and that’s not what the game needs when dealing with head injuries.

ARLC Chairman Peter V’landys

(Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)


When league is hit with a class action from former players – and it will come – where will it get the millions (billions?) of dollars it’s going to need? I’m no lawyer, but I don’t imagine it would be terribly hard to establish how the NRL isn’t remotely meeting its duty of care in allowing illegal, brain-rattling play to go pretty much unpunished.

The head-in-the-sand attitude from some of our commentators isn’t helping either. Constant excuse making for the guy whose forearm or shoulder has just seen his opponent medi-cabbed off the field. “He can’t just disappear.” “It bounced up off the ball.” “The attacking player fell (2cm) into the tackle.”

There’s also an argument that this has always happened in league – and that’s a load of BS too. Tackle techniques have absolutely changed over the last few decades of footy.

Everyone in my generation was taught “first man in low, second over the top.”

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You could be forgiven for thinking the technique is now “first two launches in simultaneously over the top of the ball, third man in aim for the ribs and fourth man go for the knees.”

Aiming over the top of the ball is fine when it comes off. But it’s also a high-risk move. Head clashes with opponents and teammates are the first concern. Then we have the “it came up off the ball” and “he fell into it” issues. The objective of the game is to put your opponent on the ground. How is it a surprise every time an attacking player’s body height drops? How is it a surprise that a tackle aimed above the ball might bounce up off the ball?


You don’t have to defend that way. The best front-on defenders I’ve seen targeted below the ball and drove up into the ball carrier’s ribs. Trevor Gilmeister, David Gillespie, Ian Roberts, Dean Lance, Wally Fullerton-Smith, Wayne Pearce, and Peter Ryan never seemed to have this problem. Jake Trbojevic probably has the best technique of modern players and doesn’t need to hit high.

Ian Roberts in action for Australia

Ian Roberts (Anton Want/Getty Images)

“But they’ll get offloads away if we don’t wrap up the ball?” say the coaches. So flippin’ what? As if adding a less predictable, high-level skill that creates attacking opportunities wouldn’t be better for the fans. Just quietly, I haven’t seen too many players concerned with getting offloads away while Jurbo rearranges their rib cages.

But there’s no incentive to change. Coaches can coach their players to “wrap up the ball” with their high-risk upright tackling style. If a few stars get their heads scrambled in the process? Well, it’s a tough game. Always has been. Pay a fine and more of the same next week – for the defender.

If the game’s fair dinkum, players that are knocking their opponents out week after week need long stints on the sideline. We know that approach works. It’s worked before.

But it will take a leader to set that course, not a politician.