After learning of the devastating extent of the injury to Alex McKinnon in Australia, I wanted to look at the topic of player safety within our sport. Thankfully, this sort of thing is especially rare in Rugby League but over recent years the issue of player safety has, it seems, arose more frequently than in the years preceding. We have seen the illegalisation of the ‘shoulder charge’, ‘cannonball’ and ‘chicken wing’ tackles over the last few seasons, as well a vast increase in the penalisation for ‘tip tackles’ - putting a player in a dangerous position.
If you look at the timeline of the Super League and NRL-franchise eras, is it a justified observation that the athletes of this sport are becoming bigger, stronger and faster. Full time training and advancements in sports science within the game have led to players of all positions increasing in strength, mass and speed. If you can remember your Secondary physics education, 'Force is equal to Mass multiplied by Acceleration'. In short, the forces involved in collisions in the game now, can be reasonably assumed to be on average, a great deal higher than they were twenty years ago. You could say that this is inevitably going to lead to more injuries and more danger to the players involved in these collisions, mistiming or incorrectness within technique could leave a player’s body vulnerable in a collision situation. It could also be counter-argued that injury-prevention, flexibility and technique have also seen vast improvements in the modern era, neutralising the perceived negative effects of the increases in force.
One area in which I believe changes could improve the safety of the game, is the allowance given to the defending team in the ruck. At present, I feel that far too much advantage is given to the attacking team in regards to the speed of the play the ball enforced by the referee. I understand the reasoning – quick play the balls lead to a fast, attractive game. However what I think the governing bodies are failing to address, is what sort of coaching and defensive tactics this ruling leads to.
In our game today, we can hear the familiar calls from the referee for the defenders to release the tackled player almost as soon as he hits the floor. In general, the non-tackling defenders will be positioned roughly in line with the ruck as the tackle is made. We know that they have to then retreat 10 metres, set their line and move in preparation for the next tackle, all within the time it takes for the tackled player to regain his feet and play the ball. Now, to me, the current expectation of an instantaneous release off a tackle, presents a heavily unbalanced advantage to the attacking team. We see examples of quick play the balls every week, and how fruitful they can be to the team in possession.
This all sounds about right, the game should be encouraged to contain attacking, flowing rugby. But what often isn’t considered is what defending teams have to do to negate this advantage. The simple answer is gang tackle. What we tend to see now, particularly early on in the tackle count, is two or three defenders holding a player up, allowing their defensive line a head start to retreat, before turning him on his back as they put him to the floor.
This I feel, presents the most frequent and potent danger to players. From what I have seen, the majority of tip tackles are caused by a third man lifting the legs of a player, whilst there are two other defenders (combined mass of around 180-220kg generally) forcing him downwards to the floor. We also see third men attacking the legs of an attacker as he is held up by two defenders, again, an unnatural and unreasonable strain to expect a human body to endure. What I don’t believe, is that these tactics are used to intentionally injure someone, I believe they are more driven by the control they can have over the speed of the play the ball, giving their team a better chance of successful defending.
With this in mind, my own suggestion would be allowing part of the tackle to be completed on the floor, i.e. allow the defenders time to hold the player down for longer before they are instructed to release when the attacker is not dominant in the collision. By dominant in the collision, I would class an attacker as being dominant when they have ‘gone through the line’. It is a bit of a grey area, but if the player has half-broken the line before being stopped, he is dominant and entitled to a quicker release.
I’m sure there will be plenty of opposition to that suggestion but I do feel strongly that there needs to be a culture change with defensive tactics. The strain of the force exerted on an attacking player by three defenders is frightening, but as long as the legislation is so heavily weighted in favour of attack, coaches and teams are going to use whatever methods they can to get back some of that control. I understand that it would be difficult to implement, but more needs to be done to encourage a clean tackle with the simple intent of putting the player to ground to stop his run, instead of stopping the run, holding him up, then putting him to ground under three defenders.