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Why Joseph Suaalii’s headline moment of madness might be the saving of rugby league

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Expert
10th June, 2024
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When referee Ashley Klein pointed Joseph Suaalii up the Accor Stadium tunnel last Wednesday night, there were many fans imploring Suaalii to keep walking, all the way to Waratahs HQ in Daceyville.

That will happen soon enough; Suaalii’s long-anticipated, much-publicised shift to rugby union finally comes to fruition at the end of this season. But should the many fans and media quick to pillory Suaalii for ‘ruining’ a State of Origin match, and/or being an overpaid turncoat, actually be thanking him?

The game doesn’t know it yet, but in one moment of misguided madness – a rush of blood from a debutant overeager to show he belonged at the highest level – it’s possible that Suaalii has done more to advance player safety, and future-proof the longevity of the sport, than any other rugby league player.

When it comes to player safety, none of the three major contact football codes in Australia have a record they can be proud of. For years, all of them have hidden behind the Concussion in Sport Group’s stonewalling around the links between concussion and CTE. Its head, Australian Associate Professor Paul McCrory has been exposed for plagiarism and is reportedly under criminal investigation for perjury and fraud.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 05: Joseph-Aukuso Sua'ali'i of the Blues is sent off by referee Ashley Klein during game one of the 2024 Men's State of Origin Series between New South Wales Blues and Queensland Maroons at Accor Stadium on June 05, 2024 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)Joseph Suaalii. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)[/caption]
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Note that the NRL continues with this practice today. Further, counsel from lawyers and an absence of humility precludes administrators from acknowledging that they got this wrong and articulating how they will right those wrongs.

But with the ‘we need more science’ crutch gradually being removed, and the reality of large class-action legal claims coming to light, sports bodies are increasingly faced with having to deal in the ‘now’ rather than the ‘never-never’.

Rugby Union has been the most willing to make law adjustments in the name of player safety but is chronically inconsistent in its application of those laws and sanctions for offending players.

The AFL is the most cynical; creating a veneer of care and understanding, but steadfastly unwilling to take meaningful action which might threaten to tarnish its public image.

Rugby League now sits somewhere in between; having belatedly recognised the existential threat to the sport, its leadership is finally insisting on fixing the optics around high tackling. Its referees have become willing foot soldiers.

But the problem faced by rugby league is that it remains in the midst of a chronic, almost comical, culture war; a battle for the soul of rugby league. On one side are die-hard fans and ex-players clinging to league’s working-class, hard-man’s game, roots. On the other, there is an ever-growing cohort who recognise that what were the sporting and social norms in 1974, are no longer appropriate in 2024.

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Hence the commentary that accompanied the Suaalii/Walsh incident. Celebrated Origin players Paul ‘Fatty’ Vautin and Andrew Johns, peppered viewers with observations that broadly fell into the ‘you can’t send a bloke off for an accident’ and ‘there’s always been more leeway around foul play in State of Origin’ category.

When it comes to linking rugby league and brain injury, it’s not as if either man is without a reference point. Vautin is a long-time friend, teammate and colleague of Wally Lewis, diagnosed with probable CTE and now an advocate for increased action and government investment into player safety measures.

Johns only needs to talk to his own doctor. Diagnosed with epilepsy in 2019, Dr James Stewart explained to a senate inquiry last year how he treated Johns for repeated seizures as a result of repeated concussions.

Nowhere is the tortuous conflict between old and new better captured than in a 2022 podcast featuring James Graham and Mark Carroll; both renowned, ‘old school’ forwards, veterans of countless collisions, lawful and unlawful, high and low, perpetrator and victim.

Graham has been prominent in his desire for the game to clean up its act with respect to concussion, to ensure the future health of players. But when cosied up to a microphone, feeding off Carroll’s unbridled nostalgia, every statement he and Carroll make with regard to concussion and safety is matched or bettered by them recalling with fond humour, the ‘smash ‘em up’ moments they loved the most.

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These are not men looking to apportion blame or have others take responsibility for their health, on their behalf. Evidently, if they had the opportunity, they would do it all again.

That paradox is consistently on display in the rugby league media, where stern commentary around the need to ensure player safety sits alongside criticism of how the game has gone soft.

And what about the NRL’s “no padding, no helmets” promise to US viewers in Las Vegas earlier this year? Were American audiences supposed to embrace the gladiatorial accent, or attempt to reconcile that emphasis against the NFL spending more than $1.2 billion settling claims from former players for brain injuries suffered?

It is only when influential dinosaurs in the sport and media find a way to acknowledge rugby league’s past without glorifying it, and get out of the way, that the sport will be able to move forward, and parents will willingly allow their children to be part of the next generation of players.

It is apparent that the NRL has underestimated the intelligence of fans and the mood shift that has been occurring amongst them over the last 18 months. There are many more people than they know, ready to embrace change and an evolution that they see as necessary. Thanks to Suaalii, and the incident being on high rotation in mainstream news feeds, this latest episode will give things another jolt along.

When mainstream media begins to lead with this issue and commentators previously oblivious to the concerns start preaching as if the whole ’new’ concussion prevention and safety push is down to them, then – if we can suffer the self-serving posturing – we know things are on the way to being fixed.

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The next step is for politicians to jump on the bandwagon. While the senate inquiry proved to be a disappointing damp squib, it feels like we are closer than ever to a leading politician attaching themselves to the issue and – for the mutual benefit of the game and their own focus group polling – ensuring that player safety concerns are better addressed.

Of course, it should never have had to come to this. It remains confounding why, at their own initiative, organisations as wealthy and resourceful as the NRL, AFL and World Rugby haven’t appointed concussion commissioners at the highest level of each sport; to oversee law/rule variations, medical/academic, education, concussion management at the professional and community levels, player management and welfare.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 05: Joseph-Aukuso Sua'ali'i of the Blues is sent off by referee Ashley Klein during game one of the 2024 Men's State of Origin Series between New South Wales Blues and Queensland Maroons at Accor Stadium on June 05, 2024 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Joseph Suaalii is sent off by referee Ashley Klein. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Included in that ‘to do’ list is the requirement for all sports to better differentiate between one-off, high-impact instances such as Suaalii’s hit on Walsh, and the occurrence of CTE as a result of cumulative effects of smaller bumps suffered in matches and in training.

Does the NRL have a credible position on this? A soundly based policy and robust processes that ensure compliance and accurate data measurement and analysis?

Before anyone gets too carried away about the long-term positives that will accrue from Suaalii’s folly, let’s spare a thought for Reece Walsh, the victim. Not for the first time in his brief career Walsh has suffered significant head trauma. Because we know the effects on the brain are cumulative, this has potential consequences for him in later life.

Once the maroon and blue mist has settled, once people understand that it matters not a jot that Walsh slipped downwards entering contact and that Suaalii’s intent was not to decapitate him, but the reckless nature of his challenge very nearly ensured that he did, and that it was the nature of the game itself that provided for this to happen, there will be a path forward.

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That path must have at its heart, an understanding that rugby league cannot continue to blindly blunder on without honestly and transparently addressing what kind of sport it wants to be, and how it needs to go about becoming that.

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