Rugby league is often heralded as the greatest game of all, however, sometimes it just might be the silliest. It sure can be forgetful at times, and not a jest is intended by that statement, for the issue at hand is gravely important.
Wally Lewis, one of the greatest rugby league players in history, recently confessed during an emotional 60 Minute interview that he was diagnosed with a probable chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). He recounted his doctor being moved to tears by the disconcerting brain scans.
Depicting an alarming fallout of an inherently violent game, Wally Lewis was quick to not pin any blame on the sport. “I didn’t go in there to pick up the concussions,” he disclosed. “Nor did I think about evading them. I was playing footy for the love of the sport. It really has been my life. And again, I’m not seeking sympathy. It’s just something that I don’t think the game should be blamed [for]. If there were any mistakes made, it was perhaps the way that I positioned my head – and that was incorrectly when trying to affect a tackle.”
The news was understandably met with a wave of empathy from countless rugby league fans, rallying from both sides of the Tweed. A call was issued to the NRL to better shield players from potential brain injuries, to guard players essentially from themselves.
Yet, merely four days after Lewis’s heartfelt revelation, fans branded the game as ‘too soft’ when Roosters‘ forward Nathan Brown was dismissed for a high tackle on Manly’s Ben Trbojevic—an offending tackle they deemed acceptable, at worst worthy of a sin-bin. They bemoaned the lack of consistency in ruling conscious contact, quite forgetful of Wally Lewis‘s words only days prior.
However, the fact that Brown’s hit warranted no more than a temporary removal from the game is worth debating. The unmistakable video evidence displayed Brown leaping from the ground, targeting Trbojevic’s throat with a shoulder, enough to noticeably push his head backwards. Your standard, textbook high tackle.
The NRL Match Review Committee subjected Brown’s tackle to intense scrutiny. It was ultimately decided that Brown would receive a match ban for an early guilty plea.
Equally as concerning the next day, Titans‘ forward Moe Fotuaika was dismissed for a similar offence against Warriors’ back, Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad. He too copped a single match ban with an early guilty plea. Amid the confusion, Panthers half-back Jarome Luai targeted Storm prop Nelson Asofa-Solomona‘s face with a tackle, and was merely fined.
Simultaneously, Graham Annesley, the NRL head of football, adamantly refused the existence of any directive that could lead referees to clamp down on flagrant high tackles. Indeed, inconsistency ran rampant over the weekend with varying punishment for high tackles, leading to confusion amongst the fans.
Three years ago, clubs were informed mere hours before the match of Magic Round, that any contact to the head would be absolutely unacceptable. Regrettably, today, the stance from the NRL is ambiguous.
Time has shown that any form of directives issued by the NRL usually fade into obscurity. The directive on maintaining zero tolerance towards head contact is ambiguously applied now, often varying between matches and players.
High tackles and the resulting concussions are a dark cloud over contact sports, threatening the core existence of these games. Whilst the NRL vocalises the right sentiments regarding this issue and has enforced strict concussion protocols, their Match Review Committee’s approach to punishing high tackles hardly mirrors the seriousness of the words from the top brass.
Granted, rugby league is relentless, each season brings its own barrage of faster players and higher strength. But no player should still need to be taught to position their head correctly whilst playing defence games. The NRL‘s commitment to diminish egregious high contact must be demonstrated by rigorous punishment, not inconsequential fines or soft suspensions.
Concurrently, fans who pine about the sport becoming softer because referees are dismissing players due to reckless high contact, miss the point. If this trend continues, there would be no game to argue over, no veterans like Wally Lewis whose anecdotes of risking their health for the love of the game endear fans and inspire players alike.