THE NRL’s decision to levy fines totalling $350,000 against the Newcastle Knights, St George Illawarra and the Gold Coast Titans may well mark a turning point in the code’s handling of head knocks and concussion.
Concern for player welfare has been an escalating issue for more than a decade, and injuries to a number of high-profile players have resulted in a series of rule changes.
In recent seasons, the NRL has introduced successively more stringent guidelines when it comes to concussion. Even so, there are some, including the Fairfax Media commentator and former Wallaby forward Peter FitzSimons, who believe that much more needs to be done to protect players from the long-term dangers of playing on after hard hits to the head.
With retired Knights winger James McManus pressing ahead with a Supreme Court negligence claim against the Newcastle club, the NRL must expect to face tougher scrutiny of the way concussion incidents are handled from round to round.
McManus grew up playing rugby league in the Northern Territory and made his first grade debut for the Knights in 2007, having joined the club in 2003. He claims the club breached its duty of care to him in a series of incidents from 2012 to 2015.
The Knights have until June 9 to file their defence.
In simple terms, the McManus case will focus on the nexus between two competing principles. On one hand, rugby league can be viewed as an inherently dangerous pursuit. The relevant state legislation, the Civil Liability Act 2002, recognises this by limiting the liability for harm suffered from the “obvious risks” of dangerous recreational activity. On the other hand, professional rugby league players are in paid employment, and there are any number of laws covering workplace safety.
Regardless of what happens in the McManus case, the NRL has been put on notice by the court of public opinion, and has responded in a way that shows it knows the climate is changing. Even if head-high tackles disappeared overnight, players would still hit their heads and suffer concussion. Coming off the field after any head knock must become the default position for player management.
Like the banning of the shoulder charge, such a change will have its opponents, but player safety – especially in a sport as violent as rugby league – must be paramount.