Andrew Johns doesn’t mince words.
On Thursday night, he fired them like bullets at the National Rugby League.
“They can trot all the spin and the BS they want to,” the Knights, Blues and Kangaroos legend said.
“Spin”? “BS”? Well, it was the end of a long and bizarre day in the world of rugby league.
To fully understand the story, you have to go back a year to the COVID-19 hiatus and the frantic and ultimately successful bid to get rugby league back on the park before any other sport.
The Australian Rugby League Commission introduced rule changes to cut down on scrums in favour of more “six-again” calls, at the direction of ARL chair Peter V’landys.
“This decision will significantly reduce the number of stoppages in games and showcase more open, unstructured play for the benefit of fans,” he said last May.
The ARL doubled down this season, with more changes designed to speed up the play.
“It should mean less stoppages, more fatigue, more open play,” NRL head of football Graham Annesley said in February.
That’s right: “More fatigue.”
But hold on. On Thursday, Annesley directly contradicted his own statement.
“People are saying that fatigue is up, and fatigue is caused by the rule changes. We’re saying we don’t see that in the data,” he said.
That statement came on the back of a press release issued by the NRL analysing what it called “key football and fatigue-related indicators,” and what Andrew Johns called “spin and the BS.”
“While there’s a perception the players have never been more fatigued, the data simply does not support that assertion,” the NRL said.
The document produced a number of figures to back up the assertion: there’d been no major changes in average errors, time the ball was in play, distance run, and so on.
Within hours, the Rugby League Players Association (RLPA) described the NRL statement as “lacking awareness and respect for those playing the game.”
“The reality is it’s not perceived that’s how the players are feeling – it can’t be disputed,” the RLPA’s chief executive, Clint Newton, told ABC Sport.
Newton says players are reporting that fatigue has “noticeably increased” and that “the game’s demands are higher than they’ve felt previously”.
The issue is relevant because of a notable rise in injuries, which many people are putting down to the increase in fatigue.
Physiotherapist and injury analyst Brien Seeney keeps detailed statistics on injuries in the NRL and publishes them under his Twitter handle @nrlphysio.
His stats show that major injuries, including those in training (where players are out for at least five weeks), have increased from 3.97 per round in 2018 to 6.22 per round in the season to date.
Major injuries sustained in games have steadily increased from 2.12 per round in 2017 to 4.6 thus far this year.
Games missed with concussion during a season averaged out at 33 between 2016-2020, while this season it’s on track to reach 93 games missed (based on the first nine rounds).
Lately, the NRL has issued a crackdown on head-high contact to try to stamp out concussions, but it doesn’t believe fatigue is a contributing factor to the increased rate of those or other injuries.
“If there were any signs that fatigue was having a negative impact, we would act immediately,” the NRL said in Thursday’s statement.
But Seeney is one of those who believes there is direct correlation between fatigue and the increase in concussions.
Andrew Johns is another, based on his years of experience as one of the game’s greatest players.
“Under fatigue, the game on the line, everything at stake, you get wrong-footed in an Origin or a grand final. With 10 or 15 minutes to go, you clip someone,” he said on Channel 9.
One of the NRL’s most experienced club doctors, Manly’s Nathan Gibbs, told the Daily Telegraph: “More speed means bigger impact and creates more fatigue. That’s an equation for an increased injury rate.”
For its part, the RLPA isn’t making the direct correlation between fatigue and injuries, but it is calling for more information from the NRL. It says it wants to work with the governing body to prioritise player health and safety.
“What we need to do is make sure we have the right data,” Newton said.
“We don’t know what’s causing certain things right now, that’s why all the information has to be thoroughly tested and scrutinised and that’s our position right now.
“I’m not going to get into a debate about what metrics we should be looking at, but I should suggest there will be many more we’ll be requesting outside of what the NRL said yesterday. Everything has to be on the table.”