Can rugby slow the growing concussion rate?
Kerry Hemsley said recently he loved playing against South Sydney because the referees were more tolerant of the rough stuff.
The former mulleted Balmain Tigers biker said the talk in the pre-match dressing room was that no-one had died in a first-grade rugby league game and they could go out and rip and tear.
Hemsley was pretty right. Football fatalities at all levels are thankfully rare, and the cause is usually an accident or a non-diagnosed pre-existing medical condition, not foul play.
Despite the game’s nature, spinal injuries are thankfully rare too.
And rugby league has nothing to rival the viciousness and danger involved in an Australian Rules spinning tackle, where a player’s arms are pinned to their side and they are slammed into the ground, unable to brace themselves. The AFL could stop that by introducing an instant send-off for such a tackle.
Controversies about refereeing inconsistencies, two referees, the use of the bunker, refereeing appointments – there are no perfect solutions but there are always improvements that can be made.
But is there a solution to the rugby league problem that isn’t spoken of, the exponential rise in concussions?
Even in the good old days of fair-dinkum stiff-arms and spear tackles and players staying on the field with undiagnosed head-knocks there wasn’t the number of concussions that are a part of virtually every game now.
Rugby league doesn’t have American gridiron’s problems, where fatalities at all levels are registered every year, mainly because of helmets and players using themselves as missiles.
The NFL is facing a $500 million bill for player compensation claims from the past two years, and a spate of new claims stretching over a decade could mean a bill some estimates say might reach a possible $1.4 billion, but that’s just money.
But even without helmets, rugby league’s evolution and the mania for preventing passes mean more and more concussions.
You seldom have Johnny Raper-Ron Coote covering tackles any more, because teams don’t use sweepers and because wingers aren’t going to hug touchlines and forfeit tackles.
Time was when a Tony Paskins could return from seasons in England and say to a low tackler on halfway, “Nice tackle, son” before the tackler looked up and saw a support player streaking away for a try.
Paskins was one of those who had brought back ball-playing skills that would revolutionise the game.
Years later a brave halfback, Gary Freeman, could jump up in front of a rampaging Mal Meninga at Carlaw Park, Auckland, and the Kiwi was brave, going against nearly a century of recommended technique. That recommendation said head to the side, grab the legs and fall with the attacker.
Now a Phil Gould can say to a little bloke, “Don’t go down low, you’ll get hurt”. Big blokes too.
The most frightening single collision in the modern game is a forward taking the ball up from a kick-off to be met front-on and high as others join in, the last around the legs. It’s a contest of the gymnasiums.
Most head knocks occur as a result of friendly fire as two teammates pile in high and clash noggins, usually with two other teammates below, to stop a pass and slow the play-the-ball.
A Sam Burgess can approach a Bret Morris, almost as big and just as tall, and raise his forearm, which may or may not be a reckless action.
Once upon a time Morris would have prepared for a conventional low tackle. Not now, and any attacker’s reflex action is to brace and raise a shoulder and forearm. Burgess is suspended and Morris suffers a jaw injury.
A Jason Taumalolo can run ten to 15 metres with two high tacklers before a third goes for his legs and his progress is stopped. It’s a new statistic; post-contact metres.
Time was when the Cowboys forward and his ilk would have been stopped first-up by a legs tackle, but then he’d get a quick play-the-ball or a pass away.
And so it will go on. Multiple tacklers, multiple head knocks, players using themselves as top-seeking missiles, like a Dylan Napa. Is there a solution? Probably not. You can’t legislate for legs-only tacklers or limited tacklers. All impractical.
If there is a solution, great minds haven’t pondered it yet, and if they do, self-interested coaches won’t be among them.
Meanwhile the game can only pray that Hemsley’s assumption holds true and ponder the day when, like the NFL, a compensation fund might be put aside for concussion victims.
Read more: theroar.com.au
Can rugby slow the growing concussion rate?
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