Has the NRL lost its physicality? Has it gone soft?
Aim a fraction too high and you may as well leave your boots in the shed for a week. One punch, 10 minutes in the bin. A dangerous tackle? That’s a date with the disciplinary tribunal in a few days time.
Many spectators – and players, feel that referees are blowing their whistles for the sake of it and that some players are staying down to milk penalties. “They don’t breed ’em like they used to,” is the refrain.
Rugby league is a tough game, played by tough men and there is no sugar-coating the fact that NRL is a contact sport, can be brutal and we don’t want it to change. The game we see now is being played in a very different way. It has a different skill level, different tactics and different structures. The players are getting bigger, faster, stronger and so is the game.
League was once a complex game that required tough men who had little regard for reputation and consequences. They unleashed with merciless intent and created blood pools, broken bones and a game consumed with violent behaviour that fans loved. It was an era that created some of the greatest moments in league folklore including the biff between Mark Geyer and Wally Lewis in 1991 State of Origin. Darryl Brohman was also unfortunate enough to feel the grunt of Les Boyd in a State of Origin match over 30 years ago when Boyd intentionally smashed his jaw in a tackle.
Those events are still talked about today and one of the toughest men to have ever played rugby league believes the NRL has not gone soft.
Dubbed as one of the hardest men to have ever played rugby league, Les Davidson had players running in the opposite direction every time he stepped onto the field. At just 20, he was playing first grade against some of the toughest blokes you could meet, including Trevor Gillmeister and Peter Kelly. Davidson played 244 games for the South Sydney Rabbitohs and Cronulla Sharks in the 80s and 90s, toured with the Australian Kangaroos and represented NSW in the State of Origin five times.
He was well known for his “take no prisoner attitude” and his ability to intimidate other players. Not a favourite of the referees, Davidson had his fair share of quarrels which more than often left his opponents in dismay. If there was ever a fight on the football field you could put money on the fact that Davidson would be in the middle of it. One thing is for sure if there was ever a punch-up, you would hope Davidson was on your side.
‘Looking back, it was a crazy way to play’
Davidson, Kelly and Gillmeister were all products of the country, Davidson born in Bourke NSW later moving to Dubbo admits that Kelly and Gillmeister were two of the hardest competitors he came face to face with.
“It’s something to do with the country boys, they breed them tough I think,” he laughed.
Davidson and Kelly had an encounter in a 1989 scrum which resulted in Davidson knocking the headgear clean off Kelly’s head before being sin-binned. This was only one of the memorable fights that Davidson ever had. These days this behaviour would be deemed illegal.
“My game instructions were to get as many people carried off the field as possible,” Davidson said.
“Looking back at it now that was probably a crazy way to play.”
We can sit on the sideline and question how that player missed that tackle or why that player didn’t catch that ball. What we don’t know is that player is carrying an injury, that player is actually really hurt, we see it happening more and more in every single game.
In last year’s grand final, former South Sydney Rabbitohs Sam Burgess broke his jaw and played the whole game to win a premiership. This year, team-mate Dylan Walker broke his hand in the first 10 minutes of the game and stayed on despite the pain, miraculously scoring two tries.
Canberra Raiders halfback Sam Williams was injured in a late tackle. Obvious that he wasn’t well, he played the 80 minutes only to be rushed to hospital soon after the game with a collapsed lung.
Yet the NRL has been labelled soft from commentators, fans and players because referees are penalising players who engage in dangerous behaviour. Soft for outlawing punching and soft for suspending players for lengthy periods of time. The modern game has dramatically changed and Davidson agrees.
“You could run your own race then. It was not as structured as today. Today is full on structure and it’s too disciplined,” he said.
“Today teams are too fixed on winning and limiting the other teams advantages in penalties.”
“I don’t think it’s soft if you look at the boys they are so big and physically fit and strong… It’s such a physical game. Maybe a little bit of the brutality has been taken out of it which is a good thing.”
After the shoulder charge was banned, fans applauded the efforts of players like Sam Burgess, Sonny Bill Williams and Kane Evans who pulled off big hits legally without hurting other players. Davidson believes the NRL could have gone about banning the shoulder charge differently.
“They could have penalised or came down hard on players who come in contact with the head. A shoulder charge below the shoulders is fine and people love seeing that stuff.”
But he also believes the NRL has done the right thing in eliminating the intense brutality.
“They have to protect the players, especially with head knocks,” he says.
“If you can’t have a good family life through injury, then it’s not worth it.”
What’s clear is that toughness is no longer judged on big hits or how many punches were thrown. These days it’s about resilience and the amount of pain players are prepared to push through to stay on the field. – Ellen Conroy
Top photo by Jessica Heckley.