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The Roar


King Wally's CTE diagnosis shows why league must make major rule changes to protect players from themselves

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11th August, 2023

As more and more players exhibit symptoms of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the game of rugby league grows ever closer to a tipping point in terms of exactly what it looks like in the future.

Wally Lewis was brave, open and honest in his appearance on 60 Minutes, where he outlined some of the early signs that led to his eventual diagnosis with the debilitating disorder.

Physically, Lewis dished plenty out in his long and celebrated career and took more than his fair share in return. Now, at 63, he is destined to pay the price, as he enters what should be a relaxing and enjoyable time of his life.

In the 1980s, Lewis played the game in the manner expected, traditional softening-up periods were the norm and any player not able to match the physical presence of the opposition in the early stages was chewed up and spat out quickly.

That was simply the way it was and plenty of the concussions experienced came from wild haymakers and violent acts that sent players into the middle of next week.

However, rugby league is the toughest contact sport in the world, given how little exists to protect the people playing it, and accidental head injuries are a logical extension of the way the sport is played.

It is not alarmist to suggest that considering the growing number of players becoming aware of issues emanating from what is likely connected with the head injuries and concussions they experienced during their careers, the very fabric of rugby league and the way it looks on the field must seriously be in question.


Modern players are bigger, faster and stronger than their predecessors. The 10-metre rule created a collision-based game that sees enormous men meet with considerable momentum and the fearlessness of the combatants ensures that violent and frightful head injuries will undoubtedly occur.

Much has been made of Kalyn Ponga’s four concussions across a 10-month period. Many a medical professional would suggest that he should simply retire, with the unknown in the form of the long-term effects scary enough to discourage further participation.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 12: Kalyn Ponga of the Knights leaves the field for an HIA during the round two NRL match between Wests Tigers and Newcastle Knights at Leichhardt Oval on March 12, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Kalyn Ponga. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Ryan Matterson and Victory Radley have also suffered multiple concussions within the course of a single season and with the more professional assessment of head injuries and the mandatory protocols that exist in the modern game to deal with them, the true number of incidents is now more clearly apparent.

For how long the game can observe those incidents and allow the sport to continue unchanged is a key question. As beautiful as the contest is, at what expense can the theatre be allowed to continue?

The list of affected ex-players continues to grow. Canterbury great Steve Mortimer, former Seagull, Giant and Eel Brett Horsnell and 56-year-old Mark Carroll are all struggling at different stages of the disorder.

Mario Fenech’s story and battle has been much publicised and Englishman James Graham has received a diagnosis of shrinkage in his brain after an estimated 100 concussions across a career of more than 400 matches. Yet it was the news around Lewis’ health that rang as loud as any other.


The notion of an Immortal suffering through old age with a degenerative brain disorder is a clear reminder that no player is above the medical realities that the game presents when it comes to head knocks and concussions. The irony of the title given to the game’s greatest players cannot be overlooked.

Wally Lewis (Photo by Getty Images)

The deaths of former coaches Steve Folkes and Paul Green, who were both representative players, brought definitive diagnoses of the damage done to their brains. Former Kangaroos forward Ian Roberts also has permanent brain damage after what was a brutal career in the engine room at three clubs, Origin and Test level.

As more and more rugby league warriors struggle through later life and autopsies confirm CTE in others once deceased, only then will the true scope of damage caused by repeated head trauma to players be known.

The core question for us all as a rugby league community is whether we can simply allow the sport to continue in its current form, without rule changes and fundamental alterations to the way it is played. If we do, another generation of CTE sufferers is likely to be the result.

The bravery of players like Lewis and Green from yesteryear are matched by the players in the modern game. All brave men who love rugby league and are not likely to lay blame at the foot of it.

Acknowledging people’s rights to participate of their own free will in a sport is one thing, yet navigating the problems associated with repeated head trauma and subsequently providing a reasonable environment where risk is mitigated to an acceptable extent is another.


At the moment, as the list of ex-players being affected grows ever longer, I’m not sure the NRL can achieve that balance without making significant changes to the way the game is played.