In the never-ending battle between coaches and rule makers, how long before NRL players who run backwards into the defence face a frightening dilemma: do I want busted ribs and bruised kidneys in exchange for my opponent risking the charge of a crusher tackle?
Let’s take a few steps backwards here by way of explanation.
Cooper Johns of the Storm is placed on report for a crusher tackle on Maika Sivo last week.Credit:Getty
This sent an erroneous message around NRL land that headquarters doesn’t look kindly on players who feign crusher tackles.
The reality is the MRC is independent from the NRL and does not take “riding instructions.”
However, the doubling of penalty points for crusher tackles could be counterproductive in that it creates a third reason for turning backwards into the defence: it renders an opposition player susceptible to suspension.
No player will ever deliberately put himself in a position where he could have his neck broken but he knows the double penalty for crusher tackles will intimidate the defence.
Assessment of crusher tackles is very subjective. However, there is always one common factor in a charge being sustained: when the tacklers propel themselves off the ground in order to come down with all their collective weight on the ball carrier. Equally, there is a common factor in being exonerated: when the tackler leaves ample space for the ball carrier’s head and neck to be free of the tackle, as Johns did.
Yet the onus is always on the tackler. The rules bind him to a duty of care of the ball carrier. However, the increasing trend of players backing into tackles does raise the question whether the ball carrier has some shared responsibility in injury prevention.
NRL head of football Graham Annesley concedes there is nothing in the rules to prevent a ball carrier backing into the defence but does admit it will be raised with the players' association at the end of the season.
Given that ball carriers will continue to dig their heels in when approaching the defence and the NRL will maintain the double penalty for crusher tackles, what is the knock-on effect?
A coach may instruct players to drive the point of their shoulder into the ribs and kidneys of the open back of the ball carrier.
Sure, it sounds brutal, but it’s legal. Provided the tackler makes contact above the knee and below the head of the ball carrier and wraps his arms around the man, the tackle is legitimate.
He can’t fly in, shoulder charge-like, nor can he make late contact.
But the tackler can legitimately target the ribs/kidney of the backwards-running ball carrier with the point of his shoulder.
A rule to protect the neck can result in damaged kidneys.
A more positive outcome would be for ball carriers to abide by the spirit of the game and front the defence.
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