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'Will that change in the NRL? It probably will': Why Walsh is the canary in the coalmine for concussion

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2nd April, 2024
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There are few topics that present more of an existential threat to what modern sport looks like than concussion.

To use one metaphor, it is the genie that is out of the bottle. Once we know what we know, we can’t unknow it, and all the practices of the past, whether allowing knocked-out footy players to continue, batters to bat without helmets or boxers to struggle on into the championship rounds, have to change.

Some sports have already acted upon what they know. Boxing reduced the length of title fights from 15 to 12 rounds, and helmets are required in cricket against all but spin from both ends – and, in some countries, are mandatory even then.

The rugby codes are unusual in how they have dealt with it – firstly, because there are two of them, with massive similarities in this area but vast differences in others, and secondly because, especially in rugby league, there are two competitions with differing priorities and legal environments.

World Rugby, which runs rugby union, has been able to present a united front on both sides of the globe, but International Rugby League (IRL) which sits atop the NRL and Super League, has not, meaning both comps largely organise their own rules, albeit while continually consulting with each other.

That’s where the other metaphor can come in: the canary in the coal mine.

Rugby league fans will have seen two markedly different legal frameworks in the sport since the start of the 2024 season, with Super League in the UK taking a much more strident stance on concussion, notably when it comes to head clashes.

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Their zeal to eliminate that aspect of rugby league comes from two areas, one progressive and the other reactionary.

The reaction has been, in part, because of historical legal claims by ex-players against both the RFL, the UK governing body, and the IRL, which have changed the insurance environment and made finding someone to take on that risk more complex and expensive.

The progressive part is based on data, which overwhelmingly shows that tackles in which two heads are in the same space as the most likely to cause concussions – as opposed to traditional legs tackles, for example – and that concussions are the most reported injuries in the sport.

That has manifested in changes to the way the sport is officiated, with head-on-head contact now considered the same as other direct contact to the head.

It is worth pointing out that contact with the head has always been penalised, but head clashes were – and still are in the NRL – considered accidental, whereas in Super League now, they are not.

For the opening few rounds of the season, that saw an above average number of sanctions, both in play and by the judiciary, with fans up in arms about the rules.

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It also resulted in some farcical moments, such as a send off for Kiwi international hooker Fa’amanu Brown, who clipped the head of opponent Ben Currie while playing for Hull FC against Warrington, a decision which was later admitted by authorities to have been overzealous.

Players are also now wearing mandatory mouthguards that track impacts, much like those seen in Super Rugby Pacific, though they are still in the data gathering stage in the Super League.

Over a month in, however, the changes do appear to be working, with players able to adapt tackle techniques very quickly when suitably incentivised.

The Roar League Podcast spoke to the RFL’s Head of Legal and Operations, Robert Hicks, himself a former elite referee, to ask whether such changes might filter through to the NRL in the coming years.

“I’m not going to tell you what the NRL are going to do around it,” he explained.

“But all I’ll say is this: throughout the last two years that I’ve been in this role, we’ve had really good working relationships with (NRL Head of Football) Graham Annesley and his team both from an officiating crew perspective but also from his officiating crew and his medical crew, and will continue to do that.

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“We continue to work with the IRL – both the RFL and the IRL are in legal claims by players for historic matters.

“This isn’t about a reaction to those claims, but what we’re actually trying to do is prevent the players of today bringing that claim in 20 years saying that we didn’t look after them.

“The NRL is doing a lot more things that we’re not able to do – independent doctors, concussion spotters – and we’ve got the mouthguard data. There’s different things in different sports that you can do to try and protect players.

“Do I think that the NRL can try to find a way to encourage players’ heads to not be in the same place? Yes.”

The issue rose to the top of the NRL agenda two weeks ago after Broncos superstar Reece Walsh was ruled out for over a month with a facial fracture following a forceful collision with Panthers centre Taylan May, the first time that it had been so prominent since Dale Finucane nearly removed the ear of Stephen Crichton in 2022.

May received no sanction in the NRL, but would have been at least sin binned at the time and likely banned afterwards in the Super League.

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“Where we’ve got to is that if it’s head-on-head and the player leaves the field for a HIA, that’s got to be at the upper end of force, therefore the player will get sin binned,” said Hicks.

“If it’s head-on-head and the player stays on and we see it, we’ll penalise it, grade them and sanction them (if required), but actually we’re not seeing as many head-on-head as we were even in Round 1.

“Therefore, I think you’ll see it in the NRL anyway. Players won’t want to put their head in the same space as anyone else soon because they won’t want a Reece Walsh incident.”

The current lack of synchronicity does suggest a major divergence between the NRL and Super League, which could have huge ramifications in international games, but Hicks insisted that the two comps were not actually that far apart in how they dealt with head-on-head contact.

“I don’t know how they’ll do it but I think you’ve already started to see that messaging come out a little bit more,” he said.

“I don’t think the NRL suffers in the same way that the Super League does because it had fewer three- and four-men tackles. It is a lot more hit and whack in the NRL.

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“Go back to one of the greatest games we’ve seen in recent years, Australia v New Zealand at Elland Road in the World Cup semi-final: there was very little head contact in that game because the players mastered the craft of hitting at the right area.

“Bring that forward to Wigan v Penrith in the World Club Challenge, under what everyone said was different rules. No, it was under different sanctioning frameworks, not different rules.

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“We reviewed that game over here under the IRL framework and under our (Super League) framework, and there wouldn’t have been a charge in that game for any high contact.

“That tells you that we’re not a million miles apart in what we’re trying to achieve anyway, but probably the big difference is head-on-head.

“Will that change in the NRL? I think it probably will, but that doesn’t mean you have to have send offs, and we’ve not got send offs for head-on-head over here.”

Furthermore, Hicks was quick to point out that the fundamental fabric of the game, built around the collision and great attacking play, was vital and to be maintained – just without the head contact.

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Notably, in the same weekend that the new interpretations came into force, the Super League had what will surely be its hit of the year, with Tariq Sims ironing out George Williams with what was a totally legal shot.

“I’m not naïve to the fact that rugby league is a high-paced, intense collision sport,” said Hicks.

“We love to see the spectacular tries, like the unbelievable try that won the New Zealand Warriors game (by Xavier Coates), that’s a viral clip.

“We also know that the Tariq Sims tackle on George Williams is a viral clip. We want all those types of things to happen.

“The irony in our season is that Franklin Pele got sent off in Round 1 of Super League after one of the most amazing hits where he took the player to the floor and then had an absolute brain explosion and decided to smash him in the head on the floor.

“The first tackle was an unbelievable hit, totally legal, and they are things we want to keep in our sport. What we want to do is reduce the amount of illegal contact that goes on. I know the NRL is in that same space.

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“What we trying to achieve is to still have big hits, and a lot of our big hits are when players bend their backs, drive and whack into the midriff and take them off their feet. We know that they’re safe, and they’re safe because they haven’t hit the head.

Reece Walsh (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

Reece Walsh (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

“Because our players are wearing mouthguards over here, we’re able to assess the acceleration event that takes place, which causes subconcussive injuries, and it’s the subconcussive injuries over a period of time are the ones that can degenerate the brain.

“We’ve brought mandatory mouthguards in but we’re not using the data live yet because we want to make sure that the data is accurate.

“We know for example in Super League that we have a play that triggers a 10g acceleration event by side-stepping. We can see that by correlating the video with the mouthguard data.

“But a 10g trigger is not very high. World Rugby don’t take players off unless they hit 70g, so you can see how far up you go.

“We had a head-on-head collision this year that got 60g for both players, so that’s the equivalent of a car crash, and that’s head hitting head. That’s why they can be the most dangerous types of tackle.”

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