LOOK OUT: The position of players in tackles is under scrutiny. Picture: Getty ImagesNRL vice-supremo Todd Greenberg this week announced yet more rule changes to a game that has been suffering from unforeseen consequences since the move to a 10-metre rule in the late eighties.
The latest instalment saw Greenberg state his considered view on tacklers putting a player into a “dangerous position”.
He warned, in rather earnest tones, that tacklers would be “charged unless you pull out quickly and return the player to a safe position”.
Given the current focus on protecting the vulnerable areas such as the neck, this is not an unreasonable stipulation.
It’s also wholly in keeping with Sports Administration Theory 101: If the game gets hurt, so will the business – give it a week or two then move confidently forward and proclaim in no uncertain terms a new direction.
I can’t help thinking that the duty of care between combatants we discussed in this column a few weeks ago, and the current/previous lifting tackle rule, should already cover this. But be seen to act they must.
My point in this column is not the right or wrong of this latest rule iteration, rather, it is the rigour of process, the discipline, the wisdom, and the far-reaching, often unintended consequences of making rule changes.
By artificially tampering with evolution, rule changes are subject to physics and to Sir Isaac Newton’s third law of motion: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.
Think: ‘‘Let’s get a few frogs in to eat a few cane beetles.’’
The unforeseen consequences of rule changes to suit often vested interests – in league’s case, television executives and, to a lesser extent, coaches – went largely unexamined with the advent of the 10-metre rule.
Our game, inextricably drawn as it was, found itself being made into a commodity to satisfy the perceived tastes of the mass television and pay-TV markets.
Rather than a discretionary five to eight metres, a 10m rule would, it was proclaimed, open up the game. A reasonable assumption. The intended consequence would be greater entertainment from increased speed and the spectacular Tina Turner-like nature of play, of tries, of collisions that would result. That’ll get ’em in!
In practice, however, by and large, we’ve seen the contrary. With the ground gain right in front of you, why go sideways, backwards, expansive? Yards are cheap and immediately available up the middle. And so the era of dummy-half running and the play-the-ball (PTB) fixation began.
As an evolutionary consequence, the defending teams devised ways to slow the PTB down in ever more innovative ways through turtle, chicken wing and cannonball tackles.
Or my favourite, the do-si-do dance tackle, popular with the kiddies at the moment, where the objective is to get the ball runner on the ground as slowly as possible while looking like Pauline Hanson on “Who wants to be a dancing chef”.
As a direct response to the speed of the new game, and to enable off-balance defensive lines to reform and repel, coaches eschewed the classic around-the-legs or one-on-one tackles in favour of a more tactically appropriate gang mentality. Enter the age of the wrestling coach and the gang tackle.
Then along came the rule change that did it for this broken-down old pro – the interchange.
With administrators citing concern for injured players, the balance of power switched from the endurance-based, often smaller footballer with nerves of steel to the wave after wave of increasingly bigger, faster, more powerful monsters (at one stage, I kid you not, it was unlimited interchange – were these guys crazy?).
The referees dutifully aided and abetted this new style by demanding increasingly faster PTBs, ensuring techniques had to be mastered or you would lose – the Melbourne Storm a case in point.
My view, for what it’s worth, is Greenberg’s nuanced “lifting” rule clarification is nearly impossible to fairly and consistently enforce.
Who is to say what a dangerous position is (other than the obvious), particularly if the action is not completed?
Moreover, who will be deemed the main contributor to the potentially dangerous outcome?
If you look at the gang tackle on Alex McKinnon, the position he was placed in by Jordan McLean was hardly dangerous in and of itself.
McLean’s lift barely approached beyond the horizontal and, had it not been for the catastrophic injury, would have been unlucky to attract a penalty – based on standards at the time.
My point is, we had a catastrophic injury from what would otherwise be seen as a rather innocuous gang/dance tackle. One that may not have even attracted scrutiny under this new regime.
Less examined in this incident and relevant for the match review committee is the role of the other two players on top.
In McLean’s case, these guys were effectively in control of the landing position. They weren’t sure what McLean was doing, nor was McLean certain his efforts would compromise what they were doing.
So who should be charged in circumstances where lifting in a tackle is conceded by Greenberg as a normal part of the game.
The NRL has recognised that lifting occurs as a direct consequence of the often conflicting forces at play. The more forces, the more out of control the play can become.
NEWTON’S second law of motion says that Force=Mass x Acceleration.
Combining all the rule changes of the past 20 years we now have a new, fresh, interchanged player with greater mass who can accelerate with greater speed off a 10-metre base, with the resultant collision occurring with far greater force.
As a natural consequence of these dynamics and the up-tempo refereeing instructions supplied from a long list of referee directors, we now have a greater propensity for unintended contacts, deflections and awkward body positions – dangerous or otherwise.
Unlike soccer, rule changes have come thick and fast in the modern game of league, particularly since News Ltd took the game to the world. League administrators, well intentioned no doubt, have created a practical and legal minefield in pursuit of the ideal television product.
Now we see further tinkering around the edges without addressing the fundamental causal links between rule changes of the past and the game we play today.