The showpiece of rugby league, State of Origin, is just around the corner.
It’s that time of the year when even those with just a passing interest in the code tune in to watch NSW and Queensland’s finest play the game at its fastest and most physical.
It comes at a time when the game of rugby league is facing an existential threat over its level of physicality and the long-term health of players.
The Blues were presented on Monday morning in front of a stunning Coogee where the beach was closed with monstrous breakers rolling in.
Looking at the odd surfer braving the massive waves, a thought ran through my head that wasn’t dissimilar to what happens when I watch the most brutal three rugby league matches of the season: “I wouldn’t want to be out there.”
This year’s Origin series comes just a few weeks after the NRL issued a crackdown on head-high tackles in an effort to stamp out the high level of concussions that are plaguing the game.
A few hours after the Blues players were presented to the Media, the NRL’s head of elite football, Graham Annesley was across town explaining why one head-high tackle was worth a sin bin and another was worthy of a send-off.
Annesley made the point that head-high tackles have always been illegal, but that what was happening now was an extra effort to enforce that rule.
Sitting among the few journalists that day, his explanations made sense – played in slow motion.
But what is also apparent is that accidents involving a tackler’s arm slipping up and striking the opponents head are also occasionally inevitable — no matter how carefully the tackler plies his or her craft.
The high “ball and all” tackle has been a standard feature of the game for its entire history.
It’s also a major risk.
But listen to the greats of the game discussing tackling around the waist and they’ll tell you that there is more chance that they will get concussed that way.
Of course, they can also get concussed through accidental head knocks if they tackle high.
In fact, Graham Annesley says the tackler is the person concussed about 70 per cent of the time.
These are collisions involving players of up to 100 kilos or more running at each other with a combined speed of more than 40 kilometres per hour, so it only takes a fraction of mistiming or bad luck to get smashed in the head by a head, hip, shoulder or elbow – all accidental.
In other words, tackling high is a risk to the person getting tackled, while tackling either low or high is a risk to the tackler.
As of round 12 this year, 59 players suffered a concussion in the NRL – that’s roughly one concussion for every 1.6 games.
By contrast in the AFL (which has introduced new concussion protocols this season and is dealing with the same concerns), 29 players were concussed after the first 11 rounds.
That’s one player concussed every 3.4 games.
To put it another way, the rate of concussion in the NRL is more than double the rate in the AFL.
Where does that leave rugby league?
It leaves it in a position that no matter what sort of tackle is applied, someone is always at risk of getting concussed, and the stats say inevitably someone will.
And while the NRL should be commended for trying to do everything it can to eliminate concussions, it is the first to admit that they will continue because accidents happen during high-intensity sport.
If the games’ governing bodies alter the rules to such an extent that head high contact can be effectively stamped out, the chances are the game’s elite will no longer be playing rugby league as we know it.
Is it a question of mitigating risk?
The question then has to be asked as to whether rugby league has to live with the knowledge that concussions are an inevitable part of the game and can’t be entirely eliminated?
That poses a real dilemma for the future of the game.
“Concussion has the potential to be an existential threat when we think about the mere existence of certain football codes,” said Dr Hunter Fujack, the author of a new book Code Wars: The Battle for Fans, Dollars and Survival.
Alan Pearce, Associate Professor in neurophysiology at La Trobe University and a concussion expert, says it’s time the football codes stopped pretending.
“But we need to acknowledge that there is a risk, so players who are drafted or are signed up acknowledge that they could get concussed if they play the game.”
But the CEO of the Rugby League Players’ Association, Clint Newton, doesn’t agree.
“It’s the responsibility of the game in conjunction with a representative body to work on ways to mitigate minimise and further and protect the person,” he told ABC Sport.
“The reality is players, like in any industry, know there’s an element of risk involved — the question is are we managing that best as we can?
“What I don’t want to see happen is the demonisation of sport, but we can’t be willfully blind to some of the risks that come with sport,” Newton said.
‘I worry about the game’
That’s the elite end of the men’s game, but what about children?
There’s no debate that some parents have withdrawn their children from rugby league, but to be fair head knocks are not the only reason.
The general manager of Panthers Juniors, Nathan Mairleitner, says he’s heard anecdotal evidence that head knocks and other injuries as well as publicity about poor player behaviour and the abuse of referees have all been a deterrent.
But Mairletitner says that his district in the heart of rugby league country, Sydney’s western suburbs, has bucked the trend in terms of junior registrations.
“We’ve just surpassed the 8,800 mark which is a record,” he told ABC Sport.
He says his district introduced an under 5s competition this year and increased the number of teams across the 5s and 6s by 37 teams “to combat people going to soccer or netball.”
He calls it a “soft and cuddly environment”, where kids can learn the skills of the game without any threat of injury.
“You can’t get in at 10 years old — you’d have parents that are turned off because of how physical the game is,” he said.
Despite his success, he has real concerns about the future of rugby league.
“I worry about the game if we don’t act now,” he said.
“I believe there is a threat, because you are seeing people getting people taken high and you’re seeing evidence in slow motion.
Australian Rugby League Commission chairman Peter V’Landys recently told Channel 9 that the decline in junior numbers prompted the crackdown on head-high tackles.
“All our key metrics, like it or not, in the juniors are down,” he said.
“It’s not the same game, but you have to appreciate that the NRL is your shopfront. That’s what people see,” V’Landys said.
The danger for rugby league is that the base of the game shrinks to such an extent the playing pool for seniors dries up.
This won’t happen in the space of a few years, but rugby league needs to look decades down the track to save the game.
Demonstrably rugby league is trying to do something, but only time will tell whether it’s enough.