IT was a terrible accident that could have unthinkable consequences for Alex McKinnon.
And much as McKinnon’s health and wellbeing, and the emotional state of his family and friends, are the immediate priorities, at some point in the not-too-distant a panel of men will be asked to preside over perhaps the toughest judiciary hearing in NRL history.
The tackle that left the rugged Newcastle Knights utility in hospital with two fractured vertebrae, facing an uncertain fate, was not blatant foul play.
At first glance it appeared innocuous.
If not for the fact that McKinnon was unable to regain his feet, it might not even have warranted a penalty. But slow-motion replays show graphically what a perilous incident this was.
In quick succession:
■ McKinnon, with a full head of steam, tries to step his way between Melbourne Storm defenders Jesse Bromwich, Kenny Bromwich and Jordan McLean.
■ At the moment of impact, he twists his body sideways, as players are coached to do.
■ The Bromwich brothers, by this stage, have wrapped themselves around McKinnon’s upper torso.
■ McLean then grabs McKinnon’s right leg, leaving his left leg as a fulcrum.
■ The momentum is all with McKinnon but, given his right leg is waist high and firmly in McLean’s grasp, and two big men are wrapped around his chest, gravity starts to take effect.
■ In a split second, he topples head-first towards the turf and at the last instant tries to duck and roll onto his shoulder.
■ Instead his head crashes into the ground, with the full weight of three defenders, 337 kilograms, landing squarely on top of him.
McLean was placed on report for a dangerous throw and the case referred straight to the judiciary, but the hearing has been deferred out of respect to McKinnon’s family.
Whatever charge McLean ends up facing, the judiciary members face a quandary.
This was not a brazen spear tackle, a grapple, a crusher or a cannonball.
It was not deliberate.
It was more an example of modern techniques gone wrong – defenders trying desperately to flip an attacker onto his back in a gang tackle; the man with the ball intent on landing chest first, on his elbows, for a quick play-the-ball.
But it was still, in the view of the match officials, a breach of the rules. Lifting tackles are an infringement.
And regardless of the lack of malice, NRL law enforcers have shown that their duty of care incorporates considering any injuries a player may incur from foul play.
The match review committee’s official guidelines state: ‘‘When required to ascribe a grading for an offence, the match-review committee shall have regard to ... whether an opposition player was injured in the incident giving rise to the charge.’’
As Glenn Jackson explained in the Sydney Morning Herald last year: ‘‘Effectively, the match reviewers cannot charge a player as a result of the injuries, but once he is charged, they can attach a higher grading as a result of them.’’
The Knights know this all too well. Last year they lost Kade Snowden to a seven-game suspension after breaking North Queensland hooker Ray Thompson’s jaw with a shoulder change.
Snowden was heavily punished for two reasons.
Firstly, because two previous offences increased the loading on his charge, but also because Thompson’s injuries were taken into account.
Now the authorities must evaluate an even more confounding dilemma.
Thompson’s injury was traumatic, but he was always going to recover and resume his career.
After sustaining what the Knights have labelled ‘‘a devastating spinal injury’’ that has left him facing ‘‘a variable prognosis’’, McKinnon’s career appears almost certainly over.
We can only hope he is able to one day walk and lead a relatively normal life.
In the meantime, the NRL’s justice system will come under scrutiny.
Accidents happen in all walks of life. But if laws are broken in the process, society demands that it is not only the victim left to deal with the consequences.