7 June 2024

Origin send-off an important decision for the welfare of players and the game

| Ian Bushnell
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Blues centre Joseph Suaalii: “I didn’t mean it all.” Photo: Screenshot.

Let’s be upfront: I’m a Queenslander with a long memory that goes back to pre-Origin humiliations. So with that sense of grievance seared into the psyche, the outrage perpetrated by the rugby defector Joseph Suaali’i on Maroons golden boy Reece Walsh registered white hot.

Of course, he had to go.

Yes, it ruined the contest because, inevitably, 12 gallant Blues could never stay with 13 Maroons, especially a team like that.

But in the cool of the days following, it is even clearer that the decision was correct because the game is bigger than a single contest, and player safety should be paramount.

Walsh is a gifted athlete and the game only sees the likes of him maybe once in a generation.

He is the kind of player who electrifies crowds and sends television ratings off the chart.

The NRL has worked hard to transform what was a dour and overtly thuggish game into a modern spectacle that inspires a stream of youngsters – male and female – into the code.

It is everything the game they play in heaven is not, which is why even with a winning team, the Brumbies cannot get a decent crowd to Canberra Stadium.

The last thing the NRL wants in a season plagued by injuries to star players is to have its brightest prospect driven from the game by continuous, illegal attacks to the head, something parents are extremely sensitive to.

Walsh has now copped two serious head injuries this year, both in similar circumstances, where he has passed the ball and been taken out.

Yes, the game is played at high speed, and defenders want to nullify weapons like Walsh, but the bottom line is he did not have the ball and there was contact to the head.

Suaali’i, most observers agree, got it all wrong – the timing, the angle, and in the face of the onslaught, Walsh appeared to slip.

But it was not so much a tackle as a flying shoulder charge. Suaali’i committed to serious contact with Walsh whether he had the ball or not.

Walsh had been roughed up after kicking the ball only a couple of minutes before, so it was pretty obvious that he had a target on him.

No one is saying Walsh or players like him should be a protected species or that rugby league needs to go soft.

What the send-off should say is that reckless, dangerous play will be met with the severest sanction that can be meted out and that any strategy to neutralise a player by foul play will not be tolerated, no matter what level the game is played at.

The argument that it was a ‘club land’ dismissal but not warranted at ‘Origin level’ is fatuous and harks back to the so-called glory days of anything goes in certain games and before the awful toll that head knocks take on players was known.

The playing field is a place of work for these athletes, and its occupational hazards need to be managed as part of the duty of care.

An NRL highlights reel shows plenty of big hits – and there were some classics on Origin I – but people pay to see tries scored, and today’s players are producing efforts of amazing athleticism and masterful creativity.

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Handing Suaali’i a simple penalty or just 10 minutes in the bin would have rewarded the use of illegal and dangerous practices and put the integrity of the code itself at risk.

Walsh says diplomatically of the tackle and send-off, “That’s footy”, but he can ill afford more of the same kind of treatment.

Suaali’i says it was unintentional, but it will probably mean his Origin career will be one of the shortest in the history of the contest. He had better learn his lesson before he goes to rugby, where even stricter tackling rules are being considered, or face a similarly short representative career there.

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It’s a microcosm of the macrocosm; i.e. an overly ‘poncified’ and cookie-cutter society in general provides for overly ‘poncified’ and cookie-cutter reactions to everything. If you think this kind of society is good, then all the reactions that reflect this will make you happy. But if you think that society can do better than this, then the direction of the league -for one – is most concerning.

Of course, overly ‘poncified’ and cookie-cutter responses will involve pointing to “DANGER” and “SAFTY” and such things – thinking (no, feeling is more appropriate) themselves right and rather justified in every sense – but as my old dad always says about the left and it’s darling fee-fees, it never fails to put risk and precaution upside down – allowing the stupidest of things to go completely unchecked and clamping down on others things where no hand is needed.

It’s a form of anarcho-tyranny which only gets by when people’s tastes become so degraded as to prefer rubbish food – and you get overly ‘poncified’ and cookie-cutter society (and league) as a result, while people are sticking under-tested and highly novel shots in their arms, because the cartel in big pharma told them to do it, in response to a pandemic that was anything but what they call it, but which catastrophically shut down the whole world all the same.

But it’s your choice: the society of kids gloves for tough footy players who know the risks, or letting up on that and beginning to focus on other things.

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