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Opinion

Rugby league needs to rethink the fine line between being brave and foolhardy in keeping injured players on the field

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Expert
13th May, 2024
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Rugby league needs a rethink on the time-honoured notion of players “soldiering on in the field of battle” while injured. 

It’s a philosophy which has permeated the sport’s folklore since it began. 

Rugby league is a tough sport and that will forever be the case but win at all cost attitudes of players and coaches can do more harm than good. 

Shaun Johnson injured his pectoral early in Sunday’s clash with the Roosters at Allianz Stadium. 

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 30: Shaun Johnson of the Warriors passes the ball during the round eight NRL match between the New Zealand Warriors and the Canberra Raiders at Moreton Daily Stadium, on April 30, 2022, in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)Warriors veteran Shaun Johnson. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)[/caption]
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This led to the faux pas in a post-game live interview on Nine when he said “I’m never gonna pull myself off” before rephrasing that to say “that sounds a bit weird. I was never going to come off myself”. 

His coach, Adam O’Brien, also left the final decision in the player’s hands and Ponga was undeniably courageous but undoubtedly ineffective as the injury restricted his movement. 

The concussion awareness era has permanently moved the goalposts for contact sports. 

A head knock is clearly as serious as it gets but even when a player has a lesser injury that is still debilitating, coaches are oh so reluctant to replace them unless it happens to fit in with the interchange schedule they’ve drawn up pre-game. 

And for the coaches who roll with four forwards on the bench, any injuries in the backline suddenly cause all manner of panic as second-rowers shift a couple of spots wider on the edge. 

On a related note, the spate of hamstring injuries these days is partly due to the fact that every player on the field is now capable of, and usually hits, speeds of 30km/h and above when they sprint. Going back a couple of decades the running joke was “forwards don’t have hamstrings” if one of them ever tore one because very few of them were capable of hotfooting it across the field in cover defence like Payne Haas did last Thursday against Parramatta,

The NRL needs to tinker with the substitution rules, whether it’s an extended bench or more interchanges, because it’s unfair on a team if they lose a player early in the contest to a category-one concussion when they are ruled out by an independent doctor and are forced to play the rest of the match a player down. 

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As it stands, two players have to be ruled out with failed HIAs for the 18th player to be activated, which is one less than when the rule was first brought in. 

There is a fear that automatic free replacements for head knocks will lead to coaches rorting the system by telling players to deliberately fail HIAs, which explains why you have to have two out before you can bring a fresh player in. 

A solution on that front would be that a player has to be ruled out by the Bunker doctor with category-one symptoms for a fresh reserve to be activated. 

Under the protocols they would automatically be excluded from the following round so no player is going to feign a stumble to attract the attention of the Bunker doctor (that would be a very ethically dubious ploy but some coaches will stop at nothing). 

When two competition points are on the line, or a premiership trophy, self-preservation and duty of care are merely buzzwords.

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SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 05: Sam Burgess of the Rabbitohs poses for a selfie with his mother Julie Burgess after victory during the 2014 NRL Grand Final match between the South Sydney Rabbitohs and the Canterbury Bulldogs at ANZ Stadium on October 5, 2014 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Sam Burgess poses for a selfie with his mother Julie after the 2014 NRL Grand Final. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

It seems like madness nowadays but it was a little less than a decade ago when Souths star Sam Burgess fractured his cheekbone in a sickening collision with Bulldogs prop James Graham in the opening minute of the 2014 Grand Final and the call came down from Michael Maguire in the coach’s box that this was his “John Sattler moment”. 

It was a different time then and definitely a much less sophisticated player welfare environment in 1970 when Sattler also played through pain in a Grand Final after suffering a broken jaw early in the match against Manly. 

In the bygone eras of rugby league there was no substitute allowed and when players got injured, some of them would start a fight with an opponent in the hope that they would both get sent off rather than leave the team a player short if they succumbed to their injury. 

Decades from now, sports fans will look back at what is now known as the modern era and shake their heads at some of the treatment that players endured, and willingly accepted, as part and parcel of the role.

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