RULE OUT LA TE HITS Ball players deserve protection from enforcers
jonathon. tuxworth@ news. com. au @ bulletin_ sport THE Divinyls hit says it’s a fine line between pleasure and pain. It’s a delicate tightrope the NRL now faces as it weighs up how to find the sweet spot between ensuring rugby league retains its gladiatorial appeal, while also making the game safer. The judiciary case of Canberra forward Sia Soliola, who received five weeks for his late and high hit on Melbourne Storm star Billy Slater, has again thrown player safety into the spotlight. Somewhat ironically, a case study was published in the US this week which found that all bar one of 111 NFL players who donated their brains for research suffered the condition chronic traumatic encephalopathy. To the NRL’s credit it’s taken the decision out of players’ hands, who generally refuse to come off if it’s their call, when they suffer head knocks. Concussion tests are now mandatory and players who aren’t fit to return are basically saved from themselves. The next step the NRL must take is to protect the playmakers, the creative entertainers of our game, from being whacked into early retirement.
The instances of “enforcers” hitting ball players late after they’ve passed the ball has been allowed to fester to the point where it’s now commonplace in every game.
Halves who take the ball to the defensive line shouldn’t be wrapped in cotton wool either by the referees. We all admire the courage of the Johnathan Thurstons and Cooper Cronks who are prepared to take a hit to create an opportunity for a teammate.
But the deliberate late hits, when the ball has well and truly moved on, is what needs to be eradicated from the game.
It came to prevalence a couple of years ago when the Cowboys called for more protection for playmakers when then Newcastle hard man Beau Scott lined Thurston up late a couple of times in an upset win in Townsville.
The practice wasn’t dealt with harshly enough then, and ever since, intimidating forwards have been given a free pass to try to belt the most creative players out of games.
The game’s power brokers need to send a clear message to parents, who may be hesitant in allowing their children to play one of the toughest sports on the planet that blatant thuggery won’t be tolerated.
Soliola is one of the true gentlemen in the game. Those who have accused him of being a thug couldn’t be more off the mark, especially those who labelled it a deliberate act.
But at the end of the day youngsters go to games wanting to watch the electric players like Slater, not reliable forwards like Soliola.
They grow up dreaming of emulating the tries and scintillating runs that have become Slater’s trademark.
Revelations that Slater couldn’t recall the previous two weeks of his life after the Soliola hit, including his brilliant performance in Origin III, were particularly concerning.
The last thing the game wants is for concerned mothers to push little Johnny toward playing soccer or cricket instead of the greatest game of all.
Meanwhile there’s been plenty of complaints this week that the WNBL season has been shortened from 24 to 21 games next season in a more condensed schedule.
But in my opinion Basketball Australia deserves a ton of credit for getting this crucial decision spot on. And here’s why.
The season will finish in late January instead of early March, ensuring it doesn’t clash with the start of the AFL and NRL seasons.
By the time February rolls on, the football codes dominate the media and competitions like the WNBL struggle to get a look in.
It means the three- game grand final series doesn’t get the exposure it deserves and this year there will be more clear air to capitalise on.
Secondly, the earlier finish means players who want to earn a living in Europe can play in Australia, then head back overseas. It’s the reason the Townsville Fire managed to lure back two- time championship winner Cayla George this season.
Sporting fixes are harder to come by in summer and the fact the league is back on Fox Sports this year will help the league make up the ground it has lost to the likes of cricket, soccer, AFL and netball.
NOT ON: Storm fullback Billy Slater is taken from the field after a high tackle by Sia Soliola of the Raiders.