NRL

Long known for its unique brutality, rugby league is facing an identity crisis as it comes to grips with the issue of player welfare. By Adam Burnett.

NRL head knocks and player welfare

St George Illawarra’s Tyrell Fuimaono is sent off playing against Melbourne Storm last month.
Credit: AAP / Dave Hunt

In Rugby League Land, where the air is always thick with invectives and melodrama, this latest controversy instantly felt weightier than most.

A sudden crackdown by NRL officials on any contact with the head, made on the eve of round nine, had just as suddenly descended into farce. The NRL had promoted the eight-match festival of footy at Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium by calling it Magic Round. But when there were more sin-binnings (14) and sendoffs (three) than any round in the competition’s history, a celebration of the game became something else entirely.

The root cause of the chaos was two-pronged. First, a spike in high tackles through the first eight rounds of the NRL season had raised eyebrows among the competition’s powerbrokers. Seguing into point two, this meant said powerbrokers had become concerned the image their game projected had fallen out of step with an evolving public expectation on player welfare. Their numbers also showed a considerable decline in junior participation, and from there, dots were joined.

The questions posed were inward facing: Is our game anachronistically violent? Has our target market become disillusioned byits inherent dangers?

Just like that, rugby league, a sport with the deepest of working-class roots, known for a century for its barbarism, immortalised for its unflinching endorsement of extreme physicality, was facing an identity crisis.

The timing was terrible. For three weeks, as players came and went from the field as if by invisible revolving door, the controversy rumbled on. Players and former players vented their frustrations on social media. Well-credentialled rugby league journalists wrote considered think pieces. All the while, no one – not the fans, nor the referees themselves – seemed immune to a pervading sense of confusion: What was the end goal here? Why was this deemed the right way to achieve it?

Then the season arrived at the doorstep of State of Origin, rugby league’s undisputed showpiece event. St George Illawarra coach Anthony Griffin forecast a 13-a-side game being reduced to 11 on 11. Just days out from game one, the suggestion that players would begin “staging” to trick referees into sin-binnings or sendoffs caught like wildfire in the media. Such an act – one abhorred by rusted-on rugby league types who see it as a trait of their soccer-playing rivals – on such a stage might have pushed the sport to a humiliating nadir.

Then there was the broader question: Would the NRL really risk ruining its marquee series by maintaining the crackdown?

In the end, depending on who you listened to, that did or didn’t happen. The following evening, Fox Sports’ rugby league journalist Paul Kent called the NRL “a gutless organisation”, insisting they had backed away from their own exacting standards after Queensland winger Kyle Feldt stayed on the field following his high tackle on Blues back-rower Cameron Murray.

“Three weeks ago,” Kent bemoaned, “he was being sent off.”

But others saw the situation as more nuanced.

“There weren’t actually many head knocks that occurred,” Maroons legend Billy Moore told The Saturday Paper. “Why? Number one, the players are adapting. Over the last three or four weeks, since they’ve adopted this new edict, the players – and especially the coaches – have naturally become more aware of it.

“If a coach loses a player from the field, they’re in big trouble, and that’s the language that coaches understand; they understand causality, and they’re not willing to do anything that could jeopardise the outcome of a match.

“The other reason was the frenetic pace of the game. There was a lot of heavy contact and a lot of it in quick time, and in that it became pretty clear the players have had it drilled into them they can’t go near the shoulders anymore.”

All of it felt as if the NRL panicked into rushing to deal with a problem it was already partway down the road to addressing. As society has become increasingly risk averse, with studies showing the effects of repeated concussions on the brain, the governing body has responded, often in the face of criticism.

In 2012, the shoulder charge – a regular favourite on the highlights reel – was outlawed. The following season, a punch thrown in State of Origin – again, previously more glorified than frowned upon – was met with a mandatory sin-binning. Then in 2014, following the discovery of numerous cases of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in American football players, the NRL introduced a “head injury assessment” rule.

From either side of this current debate, the issue appears more one of implementation than player welfare.

“Like everybody, I would’ve liked it to have been adopted at the start of the season,” Moore said. “That would’ve given teams a chance to prepare and train for it. But ultimately the question is, ‘Was it warranted?’ And the answer to that is yes. When it comes to head knocks, concussions and CTE, the bottom line is player welfare overrides all other issues.

“It was always going to be a shit fight for the first month or so, but we’re coming out the end of that tunnel now, and the shining light is that player welfare has been improved.

“The liability attached to this is a real sword of Damocles for the NRL. The governing body has the responsibility to protect its players and, if that isn’t fulfilled, the legal ramifications are enormous.

“It’s the way of the world now. People can say the game has gone soft, or this wasn’t done right, but this was coming in whether you liked it or not.”

The head contact crackdown has been the first time Peter V’landys, chairman of the Australian Rugby League Commission, and hitherto saviour of rugby league, felt significant opposition within the sport.

V’landys earned universal praise just last year when he commandeered the wheel and saved the sinking ship that was the NRL during the onset of Covid-19. Stricken by player controversy, overwrought with administrative upheaval and exposed financially by the pandemic, the competition was screaming to be rescued. V’landys swooped in and confidently told everyone within the game what they needed to do, and the rest of us what we needed to hear.

The brusque-talking, Wollongong-raised 59-year-old son of Greek immigrants was a strange balm in a sense, but also representative of both the blue-collar grassroots of rugby league as well as its ability to thrive amid civil unrest.

Which is familiar territory for the NRL and where, a little over 12 months on, it finds itself again. Only this time V’landys is both villain and provocateur in the eyes of many of the same people who were lauding him in 2020.

While the ARL Commission boss claims he has had no end of phone calls from grateful mothers of rugby league juniors, the flip side has been more publicly evident, with diehard fans using social media to routinely decry the shift in their game’s DNA.

Despite Billy Moore believing the light can be seen, the debate continues to rage, threatening now to mar Origin II on Sunday night. V’landys and the NRL have been accused in some quarters of backing away from the crackdown, while others point to questionable sendoffs, such as Bronco Kobe Hetherington’s in round 14, as clear evidence it is continuing to be enforced. It leaves the governing body in a lose-lose position.

Perhaps then it would be best to pay attention to the viewpoints of three of the competition’s most successful coaches – Wayne Bennett (Rabbitohs), Craig Bellamy (Storm) and Trent Robinson (Roosters), who between them have collected 13 of the past 29 premierships.

Amid the cacophony of naysayers following the initial round nine crackdown, their voices were largely drowned out, but all three preached patience. Robinson left his press conference that weekend with a simple message.

“I’ve heard some people say, ‘It’s not the game I remember,’  ” he said. “Just calm down – we’ll get there, and get it right.

“There’s been an over-compensation [this weekend], that’s easy to see, but we need to tackle lower. We need to get better at not hitting others in the head.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 26, 2021 as "Hard knocks".

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Adam Burnett is the features editor and writer at cricket.com.au.