Future of Big Hits In Sport?

By Stevie Parkin

The shoulder charge. The bump. The sling tackle. Are the days of these once lauded acts inflicted on an opponent in Australia’s footy codes about to become a thing of the past? While the AFL has banned the sling tackle, and Rugby Union’s IRB has done the same with the shoulder charge, is the new NRL commission about to bow to pressure from modern sports scientists and ban the shoulder charge from the 2013 season onwards?

The sickening clash between South Sydney Rabbitohs star Greg Inglis and St. George Illawarra Dragons Dean Young has ignited a debate for the new NRL commission that mirrors the issues already dealt with by the AFL and IRB hierarchies.

As Young made a break up the middle of the field he was tackled from behind, and as he fell towards the ground he turned his back on the defence to look to offload. Inglis, at 195cm and 106Kg, appeared to be uninterested in preventing Young disposing of the ball and made heavy contact with his right shoulder and arm into the back of Young’s head. Young was stretchered off in a neck brace as his father, club legend Craig Young, watched anxiously from the bench. The Dragons later informed the media that the brace was a precautionary measure with Young suffering only concussion.

In an age of high definition and super slow motion, the scale of the impact of these collisions are beamed into lounge rooms and burnt into the minds of parents of children who play grassroots footy. It’s these same parents that pay for registration, buy jerseys for their children and provide valuable membership dollars to the coffers of many struggling NRL clubs. Nobody wants to see the sort of incident that occurred during Saturday night’s game happen to any family member or friend. The participation of people, young and old, playing at grassroots level is imperative to the survival of Rugby League, as it is with all codes.

League fans all agree that the age of professionalism has produced players that are bigger, faster and stronger than ever before. Add to that advancements in TV coverage and it leaves the commission with a difficult choice. Do they ban the shoulder charge to decrease the risk of serious injury to participants, or do they allow players at all levels of footy to continue to be exposed to the risks associated with accidental heavy contact to the head?

Rugby League purists will claim the code is going ‘soft’ if the shoulder charge is banned. The big hits and brutal nature of Rugby League is what many feel make it ‘the greatest game of all’. There have been several other incidents this year where defenders have mistimed shoulder charges resulting in head contact. The judiciary has handed out light and inconsistent penalties to those charged. If causing serious injury to an opponent isn’t enough of a deterrent, then maybe increasing time on the sidelines with longer suspensions will.

Rugby League is a business, and if a business wants to survive it has to keep the customers happy. Right now the commission has to decide which happy customers are going to ensure the survival of the game in the long term. Is it Mums and Dads who allow their children to play, or is it the old brigade who say, “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it”. The commission has to decide if they wait for something to be broken before they instigate change. Let’s hope it isn’t a player.