Talking Grassroots: Players must be protected but Rugby League is a tough game

The televised exchange between Karen Moorhouse of the Rugby Football League and Sky pundit Barrie McDermott – ably overseen by Brian Carney – which immediately followed Thursday’s evening’s Betfred Super League match between Leeds Rhinos and Hull FC, made for riveting viewing.

Moorhouse, who is the RFL’s Chief Regulatory Officer, had been invited on the show to explain to Carney and McDermott (and, more importantly really, viewers) the governing body’s rationale in its attempted clampdown on high tackles. She made a very good fist of it, I thought.

This issue seems to have come to the fore in the wake of legal action being taken by a number of individuals for alleged historic negligence by the governing body and, perhaps, some clubs which, those former players legal guys say, has led to them now suffering from dementia or similar. 

That’s all now sub judice of course although Moorhouse made a highly pertinent point in stressing that such claims should be dealt with from the perspective of what expected duties of care were at the time which, surely, is reasonable enough and the core issue.

She also surprised me by stating that the RFL’s drive on high tackles has nothing to do with the cases that have recently been lodged against them. On reflection, I’m sure that is indeed the case – the RFL has, in recent years, been very good at setting the standards for other sports to follow regarding best practice in a whole range of areas, including for example encouraging diversity and the like.

On that basis one would expect the RFL to act proactively in seeking to reduce head injuries by clamping down on high tackles, and by imposing and following correct protocols for injured players. 

Nevertheless, despite Moorhouse having nailed the misconception that current litigation has anything to do with the RFL’s focus on reducing the number of high tackles, those cases continued to be `elephants in the room’, I thought,  throughout the feature.

This column is devoted to amateur Rugby League, of course, but the quest to reduce the number of head injuries caused by high tackles – and maybe wipe them out entirely – isn’t, of course, limited to the professional arena. Nor is the effect of the drive on spectators, which seemed to be of particular concern to McDermott, whose stance – although he did very well to camouflage it – appeared to be ‘old school’; a stance which, I have to say, I share, although not so much when it comes to spectators. 

It’s one thing seeking to protect players, whose welfare should be paramount, but I’m not so sure whether the impact of the drive on the entertainment value or otherwise of Rugby League should be high on the agenda. Go too far down that road and we wouldn’t be a long way away from treating players as if they were gladiators – or, more accurately, expendable slaves – in the Roman colosseum, people whose lives counted for nothing other than as something of a ‘fun’ diversion.

So the rights of spectators (and there are plenty of them at amateur games, as we all know) is, for me, very much a red herring. 

Players are a different matter, though, and the RFL would be failing in its duty if it did not seek to protect them as much as possible. 

Here, however, we hit the problem. Rugby League is, and always has been, a tough game. I played in an era that came under discussion on Thursday night – the 1960s and 1970s – when sport (and not just Rugby League – soccer and cricket also come to mind) was far more hard-bitten than it is now; in fact society as a whole was, which is why so many popular TV programmes of that age are no longer shown. Back to Rugby League though, and I don’t think I’m exaggerating in saying that you anticipated being given a ‘crack’ in every tackle (which is not to say that you did get a fist in your chops, just that there was every chance). That’s just how it was, and everyone who played Rugby League accepted it. 

It’s now becoming very different, and it’s impossible to argue against any move that’s aimed at improving player welfare. And it’s nothing new, either. Hacking (ie kicking opponents on the shins) was banned long ago but take a look at the famous photo of the legendary Harold Wagstaff, the ‘Prince of Centres’ and it’s hard not to notice that he is wearing shin-pads, despite not playing in the front row where hookers still wore them back when scrums were contested. That suggests that old habits were perhaps dying hard for many players, just as they are right now. 

For all that I demure with Barrie McDermott on the ‘rights’ of spectators to enjoy watching a bit of argy-bargy (although I can certainly see where he’s coming from, having thrilled to it myself many times over the years) I feel uneasy about ‘cleaning up’ the sport, if that’s the right phrase, too much. 

As I say, you can’t argue with that at all. But if we’re not careful we’ll sanitise Rugby League (and other sports, for that matter) so much that it’ll no longer be worth playing or watching. And where will we be then? For no reason, really, the fate of tap rooms came into my head as I was typing that last passage. Younger readers may not know what they were. For the uninitiated, they were rooms in pubs which were men only, where blokes could hang out – in their working gear if they wanted – play dominoes with a few mates and, maybe in some cases, get away from the wife (or maybe give her a bit of space for a while).

There was an understandable drive to allow women in them, which proved to be successful. The result? Tap rooms hardly, if at all, exist anymore, as they became indistinguishable from any other room in the pub. In fact many pubs are no longer there – perhaps the demise of tap rooms may have been a contributory factor. 

Rugby League could, perhaps, go the same way as tap rooms. I hope not.

And one final point. Hull FC coach Brett Hodgson (no relation) was able to state – from a position of strength, as his team had won convincingly, albeit suffering a number of injuries – that for all its focus on player welfare, the RFL nevertheless forces some teams to play twice in four days (as his just had) against sides that have had a longer lay-off, as had been the case with Leeds.

Having said that, in addition to worrying that the old biff days could be over for Rugby League, I also lament the fact that professional teams hardly play at all these days compared to when many would complete 40 or so games a year (and with part-time players). But please don’t get me started on that one.

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