Walker brothers may be Newcastle’s knights in shining armour
THE parents of James Ackerman have pleaded with rugby league players to avoid making themselves targets of shoulder charges and stop running the ball straight and hard from kick-offs.
While forwards thundering into the defensive line with a head of steam brings crowds to their feet, Michael and Sonya Ackerman argue the entertainment value is not worth the safety risk.
The Ackermans lost their son six weeks ago after an illegal shoulder charge.
They were disappointed last week when ex-players called for the shoulder charge to return after a huge and illegal hit from Rooster Kane Evans on Bulldog Sam Kasiano.
They are glad the debate took place after NRL chief executive Dave Smith not only ignored calls to legalise the technique, but increased penalties for shoulder charges.
Five weeks’ worth of suspensions were handed out for shoulder charges last round, the first under the new rules.
The Ackermans watched their 25-year-old son be placed into an induced coma at Bishop Park in late June after running straight and hard at Broncos prop Francis Molo.
Molo’s shoulder hit James’ chest and the whiplash effect severed arteries in his neck.
Michael Ackerman said fans, players and the media did not fully understand how dangerous whiplash was.
Michael and Sonya cringe whenever a player runs the ball back straight and hard.
A kick-off return is the only time in a league game where attack and defence collide with a 30m-plus run up.
“You should be able to run the ball back and not worry about someone shoulder IPSWICH co-coaches Ben and Shane Walker have moved a step closer to launching their NRL careers after being shortlisted for the Newcastle post.
The battle for the Knights job was considered to be a race in three between Nathan Brown, Penrith NSW Cup coach Garth Brennan and former Broncos mentor Anthony Griffin.
But the Walker brothers have rocketed into the frame, charging you,” Michael said. “Players need to change their techniques. The rules were put there three years ago to protect the player running the ball.
“There are better ways to tackle. A kick-off return is the time when a player is most vulnerable.
“I hope this is the good that comes out of this, that players realise it can be you ... what happened to my son can happen again.
“The game is not what it was. The players are too big and too strong.
“The game is good enough without the shoulder charge.
“I have seen players like Steve Matai make good legal tackles that do not warrant a penalty.
“What if Sam Kasiano was only 100kg? The whiplash effect would have doubled.
“It was upsetting to hear some NRL greats calling for it to come back.
“There are fans out there who want your child to be their entertainment. It is ridiculous. It is just a sport.”
The calls to de-power the kick-off return directly mirror America’s NFL, where a spate of head injuries on returns prompted authorities to change the kick-off from the 30 yard line to the 35 in 2011, resulting in fewer returns, more touchbacks and a dramatic decrease in concussions.
One ex-player who initially called for the shoulder charge to return following Evans’ hit on Kasiano was Sonny Bill Williams, perhaps the technique’s greatest exponent.
Williams backtracked after reading Ackerman’s death was the result of a shoulder charge.
“As much as I love the shoulder charge ... safety must come first! Such a sad story #keepitbanned,” he tweeted.
The Ackermans saw the tweet and wanted to thank Williams for his maturity. with Knights officials last night contacting the pair to request their coaching CVs.
The brothers formally applied for the job last week and have been backed by Broncos coach Wayne Bennett, who has praised their unusual style which has turned the Jets into an Intrust Super Cup finals force.
The Walkers have spent five years refining their radical formula, dubbed “contract football”, and are confident their tactics can succeed in the structured world of the NRL.
Ben Walker declined to comment last night but his younger brother Chris, the former Origin star still playing with the Jets at 35, is adamant the duo would be a revelation at the Knights.
“Their coaching philosophies will work in the NRL, I have no doubt about that,” Chris Walker said. “People who think their style could not work haven’t watched the way we play or understand why we do the things we do in games.
“Ben and Shane have spent a long time working on their structures and trying to get things right. I hope they get a chance in the NRL one day because it will be a breath of fresh air for rugby league.
“As a player who is playing under their style, I’m loving it. They have created a great, inclusive culture at the Jets and they would be the right fit for the Knights.’’
While the Knights have sounded out the Walkers, the door remains open for Griffin, who was sacked by the Broncos 13 months ago.
The 48-year-old was last month appointed by Ipswich’s Intrust Super Cup rivals Redcliffe for next season, but the Dolphins would not stand in his way if Griffin clinched the Knights post.
Griffin went close to securing the Wests Tigers coaching gig this season, to lose out to Jason Taylor. He had four seasons at the Broncos, with a 53 per cent success rate.