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Opinion

Game’s gone soft, huh? League's tough enough without dangerous incidents getting feather touch from judiciary

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Expert
25th March, 2024
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1718 Reads

The game of rugby league, particularly at the professional level, is tough enough without players being subjected to unnecessary risk of injury. 

There have been a string of incidents to start the NRL season which in most other sports would result in lengthy bans. 

And there’s little to no point in NRL head of football Graeme Annesley admitting they got it wrong on a Monday when on the previous Thursday night, the Broncos were dudded by their star fullback, Reece Walsh, being ironed out by a dangerous tackle.

Apart from a penalty, the player in question was allowed to stay on the field, put on report (which means nothing when everything is scrutinised anyway) and then avoids a charge. 

Annesley said Taylan May should have been pinged for the incident by the match review committee. It’s great that the match reviewers are independent of interference from above but they need to be on the same page as head office. 

Meanwhile, Walsh has to rehab his way back from a painful facial fracture, missing six crucial weeks when the Broncos have another couple of their stars nursing injuries. 

It was the second week in a row that Penrith benefited from foul play early in a match – in Round 2, Eels winger Bailey Simonsson was concussed (and lucky not to cop further injury) when Jarome Luai clocked him with a high shot. 

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Sharks forward Briton Nikora got just a two-game ban for a high shot on Canterbury opponent Viliame Kikau which could have had dire consequences. He thudded his shoulder into Kikau’s head after he had passed the ball wide, blindsiding the Bulldogs second-rower in a reckless incident which could have easily broken his jaw. 

It’s like the NRL is reacting to the old “the game’s gone soft” brigade even though there’s nobody important singing it from a media soapbox, mainstream or social.

Rugby league is a brutal sport to play, physically demanding both aerobically and anaerobically, and the players enter the field knowing there’s a high risk of injury. 

Reece Walsh (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

Reece Walsh (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

It is so much safer than what it was in previous generations but the scrutiny on contact sports in the age of class action lawsuits and concussion awareness is exponentially higher.

The rulemakers, referees, executives and match review committee cannot afford to be working from different points of view.

And it’s not just high tackles or cheap shots where they have to remain ever vigilant.

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Poor old Ryan Papenhuyzen is three games back into this latest comeback from a serious injury and he came perilously close to another extended stint on the sidelines on Sunday night. 

For anyone who opted out of the Storm’s snoozefest of a game on Sunday night against Newcastle, the relatively recent scourge of tunnelling reared its ugly head again. 

And Papi was fortunate not to land on his head. 

The luckless fullback was upended by Knights forward Leo Thompson as he bravely ran forward to leap above the on-rushing defence to defuse a bomb. 

Thompson ran into Papenhuyzen’s landing zone, the Storm star was flipped by the impact of colliding with the Kiwi forward’s broad shoulders and he was placed in an extremely dangerous position as he thundered into the turf. 

NRL officials lectured teams in the off-season, providing them with footage to say they would be stamping out this tactic but it will continue if the penalty remains light.

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This practice has been getting progressively worse and more dangerous over the past few years. 

Whenever teams put up a high ball they send at least one player sprinting forward to where the Steeden is landing with the mission of making it look like they’re contesting possession when their primary aim is to disrupt the fullback or winger trying to get a grasp on the pill. 

The rushing player will make a cursory glance to the sky, usually at the last nanosecond, to try to put doubt into the referee’s mind about whether they were going for the ball or just trying to cause havoc. 

This practice has the potential to be as catastrophic as a spear tackle. 

PENRITH, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 21: Taylan May of the Panthers scuffles with Deine Mariner of the Broncos during the round three NRL match between Penrith Panthers and Brisbane Broncos at BlueBet Stadium on March 21, 2024 in Penrith, Australia. (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

Taylan May scuffles with Deine Mariner during last Thursday’s fiery clash at Penrith. (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

NRL officials have made great strides in recent times by virtually eliminating the vertical tackles of the past by penalising anyone who lifts a tackles player past the horizontal. 

They need a similar plan of action to ensure tunnelling becomes dead and buried. 

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But they have not been erring on the side of caution and falling for players masquerading as going for a high ball. 

Tom Trbojevic did it to James Tedesco in Round 2 which led to Manly’s first try and last weekend there was also an incident when Canberra successfully challenged an incident when Jordan Rapana took the legs from under Chanel Harris-Tavita to retain possession after a line drop-out. 

Anyone who runs through for a high kick and goes beyond the point of where the ball lands should be sin-binned and be charged with dangerous contact. 

The NRL is trying to create a safer and more free-flowing game rather than the stereotype of five hit-ups, a kick, tackle the ball receiver as soon as they get it and hope for an error. 

Enforcing the hitherto ignored downtown rule has generated extra space for wingers and fullbacks to make a decent fist of kick returns. 

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Now they need to be protected from harm with stricter punishments for tunnelling. 

Thompson is only looking at a one-game ban for knocking Papenhuyzen off his axis mid-air. 

That kind of slap on the wrist won’t get the message across to the NRL playing cohort. 

Unfortunately whether it’s high shots, tunnelling or all sorts of foul play in the NRL, it often takes a serious injury or a lengthy ban to ensure coaches don’t push the envelope by instructing their players to employ dangerous tactics. 

You can only hope the NRL dishes out the latter before the former occurs. 

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