SPORTING DECLARATION: Softly, softly approach

I

 BLAME Jim Comans.

Up until the early 1980s, rugby league was a game played by men.

Men with broken noses, cauliflower ears and no front teeth. Real men.

Blokes who knew how to dish it out and take it and subscribed to the time-honoured theory that whatever happens on the field stays on the field. Blokes who could handle themselves.

And then along came Jim Comans, a solicitor who became the chairman of the NSW Rugby League judiciary.

Comans was the ultimate footballing funbuster.

This notorious wowser set about transforming the 13-man code.

Out went the spear tackle, which for decades had been a highlight of any game.

Out went the stiff-arm, the king hit, the head butt, the eye gouge, the squirrel grip and the cocked forearm to the face.

All banned for no apparent reason.

And in the madness, great crowd-pleasers and role models like Les Boyd, Bob Cooper and Steve Kneen became convenient scapegoats, copping massive suspensions simply for trying to entertain the punters who paid their money at the turnstiles.

Boyd, for instance, received a 12-month ban for breaking Darryl Brohman’s jaw in an Origin game at Lang Park.

I mean, can you believe it?

John Sattler played a grand final with his jaw smashed in 100 places, blood oozing down his chin, teeth askew, and was rightly immortalised as one of the all-time greats.

It was a badge of honour.

Brohman waddled off with his tail between his legs, sued poor old Les for damages, and is now earning a small fortune as a TV celebrity, apparently oblivious to the fact that nobody would even remember him except for his close encounter with Boyd’s (accidental) right elbow.

Where is the justice?

And now, just when we thought rugby league could not get any softer, it as if the ghost of Jim Comans has returned to haunt us.

This week’s decision to ban the shoulder charge is perhaps the saddest day in the game’s history.

Even sadder than that tragic news in 1998 when it was announced that the Adelaide Rams had become defunct.

The shoulder charge, of course, is part of league’s fabric. As traditional as grown men staging nude sprints on Mad Monday, or players having their names tattooed across their back.

There are few sights more likely to bring crowds to their feet than a big forward charging full tilt into a defensive line and winding up on his backside, impersonating an epileptic starfish, after an emphatic ‘‘don’t argue’’ from a big-hitting opponent.

The trouble is that through no fault of their own, players have become simply too good at the shoulder charge.

Because all other manner of cheap shots have been outlawed, the shoulder charge has evolved into the weapon of choice.

Once a good shoulder charge would collect the ball-carrier in the middle of his chest.

These days the premier shoulder charge merchants nail their rival flush in the melon.

The best practitioners in the business, guys like Canterbury’s ‘‘Brutally’’ Frank Pritchard, are able to decapitate their opposition with  hands tied behind their back.

No need for a swinging arm.

But then the bleeding-heart brigade whinge in unison, complaining for reasons known only to themselves that players leaving the field on stretchers is not a good look.

This is clearly ridiculous.

Rugby league is an aggressive, body-contact sport. Sometimes accidents happen.

If there were no hideous injuries and concussions, then why did TV companies invent the slow-motion replay, and why did administrators introduce the interchange? 

If players are so restricted by rules that they feel shackled, frustrations will boil over and they will take the law into the own hands. Hence John Hopoate’s infamous indecent assaults in 2001.

And now the greatest game of them all is in danger of becoming a laughing stock.

How long before AFL tries to exploit the situation by erecting billboards of Israel Folau, emblazoned with the advertising slogan: ‘‘He thought he was tough until he played a real man’s game.’’

Rugby league’s greats from bygone eras must be shaking their foggy, rattled heads in despair.

As Roy Masters, coach of the famous Western Suburbs ‘‘Fibros’’, once wrote: ‘‘To Dallas Donnelly and Tom Raudonikis, utopia was the smell of blood through a broken nose.’’

Sadly their modern-day counterparts are unlikely to ever experience such a thrill.    

RIP the shoulder charge, 1908-2012.

Lest we forget. 

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