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Opinion

NRL should consider following NFL path on kick-off to reduce risk of concussions - and encourage unpredictability

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Expert
14th August, 2023
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If you believe England’s cricketers, Bazball has revolutionised their sport within the space of a year. 

Rugby league is an evolutionary game which has rarely changed in a sudden way over the decades.

One change which took aeons to take hold but seems to be par for the course is the short kick-off, whether from halfway or a line drop-out. 

The Walker brothers, Shane and Ben, made it fashionable at Queensland Cup level a few years ago before it became widespread in the NRL in recent seasons. 

NRL coaches had previously thought it was too much of a gamble because the risk of giving up field position outweighed the chance of regaining possession. 

Thankfully, the perceived wisdom has changed and the proliferation of short restarts has added an extra layer of unpredictability to NRL contests, like scrums used to do if you ask anyone over 70 who remembers when they were not a fait accompli. 

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BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 10: Kalyn Ponga of the Knights kicks off during the round 15 NRL match between Brisbane Broncos and Newcastle Knights at Suncorp Stadium on June 10, 2023 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)Kalyn Ponga kicks off for the Newcastle Knights. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)[/caption]

And even then that is not enough of a qualification.

Granted, people who have never played contact sport suffer from all sorts of neurological conditions in later life.

And the recent publicity surrounding old footballers suffering a higher rate of these problems is not necessarily new, it’s just now that medical science and awareness of the causal link is so much higher, so it would be extremely ignorant to apply old-school standards when modern knowledge is so much more advanced. 

The NRL, while emphasising it is not going to have a crackdown per se on any given round, is continuing to punish contact with the head, both careless and reckless, with sin bins, send-offs, fines and suspensions. 

It is clear from the attitude of players that the vast majority are on board with both the sanctions for high contact, aside from a few complaints here and there, mainly from the usual suspects who sail close to the wind/head with their tackling techniques.

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And players also now seem to accept the stricter measures for checking on potential concussions from the independent doctor in the bunker.

When the assessment process was changed to a remote model at the start of last year there was an outcry from players as they were marched off against their will as well as from coaches, commentators and fans about the NRL being too cautious.

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - APRIL 30: Brandon Smith of the Roosters is taken off for concussion during the round nine NRL match between New Zealand Warriors and Sydney Roosters at Mt Smart Stadium on April 30, 2023 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

(Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

There should be no such thing as being too cautious when it comes to the possibility of anyone having a brain injury that goes unchecked. 

Now it’s a way of life in the NRL and with stories such as Immortal five-eighth Wally Lewis’ diagnosis of CTE increasingly ringing alarm bells in players past and present, there will be and should be much less opposition to any new measures that are brought in to reduce the risk of head injuries in players from the top level to the junior ranks. 

Unfortunately there is still opposition to the push to reduce tackling at the youngest age-groups with the Sydney Morning Herald recently revealing that there has been significant pushback to NRL/NSWRL recommendations for players not to be able to play under tackle rules until midway through their under-7 season. 

It’s got to the point where a rebel junior league body is growing rapidly due to parents being unhappy with the tackling rules and the plan to phase out competitive matches for under 13s and younger by 2027.

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Wally Lewis brings the ball up for Queensland.

Wally Lewis (Photo by Tony Feder/Getty Images)

Some people will cling onto the past no matter what, claiming that because they played under tackle rules when they were a kid that it should always be the way. 

The junior reforms have already been delayed a year in Sydney’s many associations because of clubs arcing up about them.

Administrators need to stick to their guns to make the right choice rather than one that will appease traditionalists. 

The more contact sports move with the times with proactive rule changes in the age of concussion awareness, the greater chance they’ll have to survive.

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