PETER STERLING: Heading for serious hurt

THE greatest responsibility that the rules of rugby league carry relates to the issue of player safety.

While the game is recognised as one based on physical confrontation and collision, the bottom line is that the most important consideration must always be are we doing the best we can in ensuring the safety of those involved?

We all love the huge hits and intimidation that is inherent in the contest, but we don’t want to see anybody get hurt.

By the sport’s very nature the two are difficult to separate.

Over the past week we have seen a couple of incidents that have drawn attention and concern. This has raised the spectre of whether immediate action needs to be taken in an effort to avoid further issues.

The problem is that both incidents involve an assessment of player “intent”, and that is always a particularly difficult, if not impossible, area to adjudicate.

In Wednesday night’s Origin decider Queensland back-rower Nate Myles appeared to lead with his head when going in to make tackles during the rugged encounter.

The most noteworthy was the one that left Blues hooker Robbie Farah concussed.

There have been accusations that this was a deliberate ploy from Myles and that tackling in such a manner wasn’t about stopping the ball carrier but inflicting the most damage possible.

It can be argued that is part of the philosophy of every tackle being executed as long as it is within the rules.

The problem with leading with the head is that it will do serious damage when it hits other parts of the body outside of contact above the opposition’s neck.

The unusual aspect is that the tackler is also exposing himself to injury by going into the ball carrier in such a fashion.

I have no idea whether Nate went into the match with the intention of tackling in a manner, if not “within the spirit of the game”, certainly in a way that was not acceptable or desirable.

I will say that good defenders in the game rarely take their eye off the target as early as he did on a number of occasions.

But I do give him the benefit of the doubt because I don’t have the insight as to what his mindset was when going about his defensive duties in the Maroons victory.

At the very least Bill Harrigan should now remind players that tackling in this way will be under much greater scrutiny over the rest of the season and give Nate a private tip that he will be especially under the spotlight.

Of greater concern is the penalising on Monday night of the Roosters’ Mose Masoe for a so-called “cannonball” tackle on opposing Cronulla prop Bryce Gibbs.

I may be wrong, but it is the first such tackle I can recall being penalised in the NRL this season after it became a hot topic following Issac Luke’s crunching of David Shillington in last year’s Four Nation’s tournament.

The problem with Monday night’s decision is that it was no different to 100 other tackles I had seen over the weekend.

This one would have been called “play on” by the referees if Gibbs had got to his feet to play the ball.

That is not a shot at Bryce, because he did attempt to get up and was obviously in some discomfort after the tackle.

What worries me is that it is still an injury waiting to happen and it will only be when one of our players suffers a serious cruciate problem that things will come to a head.

At the moment the rule states that a player will be penalised if he “forcefully spears his body at an opponent’s legs in a dangerous manner”.

That is still not definitive enough because there is an implication of unnecessary force, and I don’t believe a referee is necessarily able to determine how much is needed to complete the tackle.

A clearer interpretation needs to be introduced as of today.

It is impossible to ban any player coming in late around the legs of a man in possession still moving forward, and as I have pointed out in the past, the wrestle in today’s tackle is taking place above the ground.

If Konrad Hurrell is muscling his way over the try-line you cannot tell a defender that he can’t come in and help stop him via a legs tackle.

The only real alternative then is to put the onus on the referee to make an early “held” call as soon as he deems the man carrying the football has lost his momentum.

As soon as this call is made the legs become a no-go zone.

This will mean that the referees, especially the pocket refs, will need to be right on their games.

But if we are looking to avoid a serious injury that is certain to eventually happen, this appears to be the best available option.

It may well lead to a number of penalties on introduction but players tend to learn very quickly what is acceptable, and any short-term pain is worth the long-term gain.

As in any situation involving the health of our players we must be prepared to err on the side of caution.

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