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'Part of the game': Ex-ABs doc dismisses NRL kickoff ban claims

Will Toogood,
Publish Date
Tue, 30 Apr 2024, 11:26am

'Part of the game': Ex-ABs doc dismisses NRL kickoff ban claims

Will Toogood,
Publish Date
Tue, 30 Apr 2024, 11:26am

It wouldn’t be a week in the NRL without debate ensuing following the weekend’s action.  

In this case, calls are mounting to address long kickoffs and the intense contact they produce in rugby league - with the NRL stating change cannot be ruled out.  

Anzac Day weekend saw its first play of the round marred in controversy as Dragons centre Moses Suli ended up with a concussion following Roosters forward Jared Waerea-Hargreaves’ charge toward the defence after the kickoff was received.  

Suli was unable to return to the match, becoming the sixth player to be knocked out of a contest this year from a kickoff return, and subsequently there have been calls that if the NRL is to prioritise player safety, it must ban the long kickoff.  

Those calls were prompted by respected doctor Nathan Gibbs, a former professional rugby league player himself, who said the easiest way to reduce risk was to “ban the play”.  

But former All Blacks and Warriors medic Dr John “Doc” Mayhew, who was part of the process in removing shoulder charges from the NRL, told Newstalk ZB that while he respects Gibbs and what he is trying to say, he sees such collisions as a part of the sport and struggles to see how an effective rule change could be implemented. 

Dr John Mayhew oversaw the health of players in 131 tests and more than 200 All Blacks matches. Photo / PhotosportDr John Mayhew oversaw the health of players in 131 tests and more than 200 All Blacks matches. Photo / Photosport 

“That’s just part of the game, isn’t it? I can’t see [what’s wrong] as long as the league tackles are legal, to me.” 

Mayhew, who took to the sideline at 131 tests and more than 200 All Blacks matches, said the controversy around contact in both rugby league and union was unfounded if the tackles in question are legal. 

“There was all the fuss about that Chiefs loose forward in the weekend hitting that Waratahs first five ... and to me, rugby and rugby league are contact games and as long as the tackles are legal [I see no problem]. 

“I’ve watched enough rugby league. It must be awful being a prop taking the ball up for the first tackle because you know you’re going to hit three people at high speed, but that’s the game isn’t it?” 

Further, Mayhew said he found it difficult to imagine what rule change could occur in the NRL that would maintain the integrity of the game, citing his experience in the removal of shoulder charges that had an evidence-based approach. 

“If they’re [tackles] below the shoulder, to me that’s rugby league. When people say you’ve got to take it out of the game, how would you take it out? I know that years ago, I was involved when we got the shoulder charge taken out of the game ... the injury rate was so high in the tackler and also the person being tackled. 

“There was some evidence that there was a change you could make to make the game safer, but running the ball up. What do you do ... I don’t see how you can avoid it.” 

Warriors centre Roger Tuivasa-Sheck concurred with Mayhew, saying he doesn’t feel a need for a change in rules around kickoffs - and that NRL players are aware of the risks posed in the high-contact sport. 

“It’s all part of the game. All of us players, we know what that’s all about - injuries and that, that’s all part of the game too. I think if you’re going to change something, if that’s what you’re trying to say, then I don’t think you need to.” 

The 201-game NRL veteran said big hits were what attracted fans and players alike to rugby league. 

“This is why people come to watch, this is why we enjoy the game, because of the risks and rewards in this type of game,” Tuivasa-Sheck said. 

“I enjoy it, I try to fly in there and put myself in front of a prop and I know I’m always going to come [off] second-best, but it’s all part of the adrenaline I guess.” 

Graham Annesley, NRL head of football elite competition, mirrored the sentiments of Tuivasa-Sheck and Mayhew in that collisions “are a big part of our game” but stopped short of saying long kick-offs were immune from reform. 

“Never say never about anything, because the game evolves, and the game is a different game now than what it was 20 years ago or 100 years ago,” Annesley said. 

“Player safety is a high priority for the [Australian rugby league] commission. It’s a high priority for the administration.” 

Will Toogood is an Online Sports Editor for the NZ Herald. He has previously worked for Newstalk ZB’s digital team and at Waiheke’s Gulf News, covering sport and events. 

This article was originally published on the NZ Herald here. 

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