RULE OUT LA TE HITS Ball play­ers de­serve pro­tec­tion from en­forcers

Townsville Bulletin - - SPORT -

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.

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