TRIBUTES poured forth on the weekend for Roosters hooker Jake Friend, who is reportedly on the cusp of retiring from the NRL at the age of 31. The premiership winner's departure is due to a series of concussions.
Injuries threaten to steal the headlines from what happens on the field this season. Roosters captain and Hunter product Boyd Cordner is yet to be sighted after head knocks threatened his career, while thousands of Novocastrians were left to rue what could have been when the Knights' bench was thinned to just one player on the bench as the Dragons stole the show at McDonald Jones Stadium.
It comes just weeks after Cronulla's bench was left bare, and a week before an 18th man is introduced in a bid to snuff out the prospect of a premiership decided by attrition rather than excellence. The brutality of contact sport is not new, nor is the toll it can take on players and the risks inherent in such a career. But that does not mean the powers that be in the game should accept the toll as a fait accompli. Recent innovations regarding head knocks, as well as outlawing the shoulder charge and introducing mandatory penalties for punches thrown, prove that the game can and must evolve.
For Newcastle, their Saturday clash with the Gold Coast Titans is a major hurdle. But a closer one remains simply naming a 21-man squad given an injured list that includes Mitchell Pearce, Edrick Lee, Dominic Young, Kurt Mann, Bradman Best and more. Kalyn Ponga's expected return is a bittersweet note to a season that, while in its infancy, appears likely to be shaped significantly by injury.
Knights coach Adam O'Brien was circumspect when asked about the introduction of the 18th man, refusing to ponder it too widely in the wake of Sunday's horror show given how those circumstances would have influenced his position. What he made clear, though, is that players have a role to play in deciding the way forward.
Injured stars are good for no-one. Competitive clashes can become one-sided fixtures that struggle to hold an audience, not to mention the lifelong consequences some players can face for their bravery on the field. O'Brien was rightly positive about the grit the Newcastle side showed despite Easter Sunday's "carnage". The team refused to buckle under the enormity of pressure St George brought to bear, but they found it impossible to hold back the tide with the odds lengthening against them.
Fans are entitled to be disappointed with the loss, but it carries a context that deserves scrutiny and some concessions compared to the capitulation to Wests Tigers a week earlier. Even more broadly, that context can help decide how rules change and players are protected in the future. As O'Brien told the media, it is only round four. Sport's unpredictability is its greatest asset in drawing an audience and creating a spectacle; Knights fans will be hoping for a twist in the tale.