Inside RL: Axing the Magic Weekend is one way to improve player welfare – Smith

Nathan Massey is tackled by Adam Cuthbertson.
Nathan Massey is tackled by Adam Cuthbertson.
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IT’S SOMETIMES said one of the differences between rugby league players and footballers is the latter pretend to be injured when they are not and the former do the opposite.

“It’s not football is it?” was Castleford Tigers coach Daryl Powell’s response when asked about Nathan Massey’s appearance in the win over Leeds Rhinos last week.

Massey started the game five days after suffering a dislocated kneecap in Tigers’ Ladbrokes Challenge Cup victory against Salford Red Devils.

That’s not a boo-boo on a finger, it was a dislocated kneecap. A kneecap, which had dislocated.

The mere thought of it makes ordinary mortals want to spend a week in bed, but the joint went back in when Massey was on the ground and he got up to hobble off.

Also after the Leeds game, Powell revealed Junior Moors – in outstanding form at the moment – has been playing against doctor’s orders.

The medics reckon he should still be on the sidelines recovering from a broken hand.

There’s a fine line between brave and daft and sometimes it’s debatable which side rugby league athletes are on.

That’s not meant as an insult and the perception that rugby league is a simple game played by simple men – an allocation regularly levelled by the rugby union media – is way off the mark.

Players have an enormous amount of information to absorb and constant decisions to make under fatigue in the pressure of battle, even in the non-play-making roles.

Sometimes, though, players are too brave for their own good.

The concussion protocol now operating in Super League was introduced largely to save the athletes from themselves, though there was also an element of them not being asked by coaches to do something they aren’t up to.

Kevin Sinfield, as an example, was knocked out in the 2012 Grand Final, but got back up to contribute a man of the match performance.

It was incredibly brave, but maybe not the smartest thing he has ever done, as he admits.

Under current rules Sinfield would have had to take at least 10 minutes out to be assessed and may not have been allowed back on. Rugby league has a duty of care to its athletes and that is something the sport has to take seriously.

It is a game, not a matter of life and death.

The emphasis in rugby league is always on making the sport faster and tougher. Has there ever been a rule introduced to slow the code down?

That produces more intense games, but puts a greater toll on the players.

The result is more injuries and, as Rhinos chief executive Gary Hetherington has pointed out, players having to take to the field when not fully fit.

By the end of the season just about everybody is carrying some kind of knock or niggle, but there seems to have been a particularly bad run of long-term injuries this season.

At some stage the sport will reach a tipping point and the trend towards putting the players under ever-increasing strain will have to stop.

Reducing the number of matches, for example by scrapping the Magic Weekend, would be a start and playing only one game over Easter would also be a step in the right direction.

The move from a five-metre defensive line to 10 changed the nature of rugby league. There is an argument the sport no longer produces play-makers, like Roger Millward for example, because less creativity is needed with the defence standing so far back.

Ten metres also makes the collisions bigger, with obvious consequences. The BBC’s Challenge Cup coverage now features one player per tie wearing a microphone and the jarring nature of the collisions is quite shocking.

We are now into the second generation of Super League players. As the first group to have undergone a full career of full-time training gets older, the effects on their long-term health will become clearer.

A 400-game career will inevitably involve taking a massive amount of punishment and the fear is that that will have a cumulative effect which may only be obvious as time goes on.

Many players take to the field having had injections to help them get through a game. In Australia there is mounting concern about the overuse of prescription drugs.

All this is in the name of entertainment, to satisfy an ever-more demanding audience.

It’s something worth bearing in mind the next time your team appear not to be trying.

Anybody who takes to a rugby league field is worthy of respect.