How things are going at the moment, that theory might well be put to the test sooner rather than later.
Across the six fixtures in Betfred Super League last weekend, three players were sent off: debutants Dylan Napa for Catalans Dragons against St Helens and James Bentley in Leeds Rhinos’ meeting with Warrington Wolves, along with Hull’s Jake Connor at Wakefield Trinity.
A couple of weeks ago, the Rugby Football League’s match review panel overran because of the sheer number of cases resulting from the second round of the Betfred Challenge Cup and first fixtures in the Championship.
There were 18 charges from those games, so what happened in Super League – when 12 charges were issued – should not have come as a surprise.
At the start of every season, there seems to be a crackdown on something or other, which – after a few weeks – gets put on the back burner and normality resumes. It may be different this year; referees have been instructed to regard any foul play to the head – punching, kicking, butting – as a red-card offence.
Late tackles, on the passer after the ball has gone, will result in a sin-binning and potentially a suspension. Among others, Rhinos’ James Donaldson, Blake Austin and Brad Dwyer have already found that out.
This isn’t a case of the game going soft, but is very much a reflection of the times.
Head injuries in sport, not just rugby league, are being taken a lot more seriously than was once the case, and rightly so.
Chat to any player who was around in the 60s or 70s – or, in fact, any time before video coverage made it possible to dish out retrospective punishment – and they’ll tell all manner of horrific tales about what went on.
Taking the opposition dangerman, often the stand-off or scrum-half, out of the game was a commonplace tactic, which, thankfully, has now been all-but eradicated from the sport. Newspapers regularly receive tributes following the death of a former player and it is alarming the number of times there will be a mention of dementia having plagued his later years.
Whether there is a definite link between impacts to the head taken during a playing career and ill health later in life is something the courts may eventually decide.
Some former players are now considering legal action over such claims and the consequences of that are potentially huge. Sports like rugby league could face financial ruin if judgements go against them and they are forced to pay out large sums in compensation.
Therefore, they have to put players’ health and welfare first and be seen doing so.
Inevitably, it will cause frustration among players, coaches and fans alike and some games may be ruined as a contest, but what other choice is there?
Similarly, concussion protocols have been tightened so any player failing a head-injury assessment will be ruled out of the following week’s matches.
That may well encourage coaches to field understrength teams before big matches. Unfortunately, whilever contact is allowed – and the ultimate outcome of this may eventually be the outlawing of all tackling above the chest, or even altogether – accidents will happen and knocks will be taken.
At the moment, it is about reducing the risk. Coaches know having players sent off or sin-binned is not conducive to winning rugby matches so tackle techniques will be adjusted and that, in time, will lead to fewer cards being shown.
Referees, also, will take a while to come to terms with new interpretations but the bottom line is, they are in place for the good of the sport and the individuals who play it.
Provided the laws are applied consistently, during games and afterwards, everyone will have to accept that.
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