Sh*t just got real – the NRL loses it’s innocence

Somewhere in Sydney’s east, Greg Inglis has been saying “There but for the grace of God go I” and tossing rabbit feet over his left shoulder since Monday night. You might recall him being spear tackled three times within two weeks last season, firstly by Krisnan Inu, then Richie Fa’aoso – twice.

The obvious point to note about these tackles was that neither player was sent from the field for tackles that were potentially career ending, or worse. Not even Richie, who gave the referee a second look, just to make sure. And as Blocker Roach thundered at the time in response to Jared Warea-Hargreaves being very controversially sent off for a lot less, “Inglis has been dropped on his head three times and nothing happened.”

Any one of them could have caused the same type of damage inflicted upon the Knights’ young Alex McKinnon last night. They certainly looked worse in the sense that they were vertical in nature, yet the NRL was silent, simply because no serious injury was sustained.

Well, now the inevitable has happened, a distressing and devastating injury to McKinnon that looks no better 24hrs later, and is likely to see the end of a promising career, which is what the early diagnosis suggests. We can only hope that his future quality of life is not too severely impacted.

The combined weight of well over 300kg bearing downward on a 100+kg player who had been lifted and tipped forced him to make a decision he should never have had to make – take a punt he was being flipped (like so many others last year without suspensions), or go face, shoulder or neck first into the turf, possibly causing significant injury from that angle. His instinctive decision to try and curl up had to be made in a split second. He shouldn’t have had to make it.

The insensitivity that followed it, ranging from Storm players downplaying the incident and even placing some of the blame on McKinnon was child’s play compared to the sheer absurdity today where other commentators sought to blame the 10-metre rule or, and I kid you not, the outlawing of the cannonball tackle. Some are even complaining about the Melbourne player at the centre of the incident (who is likely to be emotionally devastated himself) being stood down, oblivious to the young man in intensive care with one less disk.

The NRL’s response to dangerous tackles has been insufficient for too long. They have procrastinated in the forlorn hope that it would never come to this. Its major shortcoming has been to not observe its duty of care to its full extent, and that might lead to significant legal developments. Accidents will happen, but when they do, the NRL must be able to say they did everything reasonably possible to avoid it. It’s difficult to say they have.

Outlawing a defender putting his hand between the ball-carriers legs and lifting is one thing, but failing to follow through with send offs and tough penalties for spear tackles and lifting tackles given the risk of spinal injury has only served to perpetuate this feature of the game. But as long as nobody was seriously hurt, everyone could go about their business …

No more.

The lack of disciplinary action on head contact (possibly because the NRL thought it had time) has now been leapfrogged by an incident serious enough to be a watershed moment for the NRL. Focussing only on the result and not the severity of an act will no longer wash. The McKinnon incident is impossible to downplay because of the circumstances on the night, and those that enabled it to happen.

How they respond will have repurcussions well into the future, and which are likely to include legal remedies. You might say the NRL’s innocence has been lost, and the real world, in the form of lawyers looking for some cash, is knocking at the door.

Management and duty of care need to be tightened, pronto. Sh*t just got real.

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