Down Under Blog: Burnout

I think it’s generally agreed that Rugby League is one of those sports that nobody ever agrees on.

For every fan that thinks the modern game is better than the game of old, there’s a misty eyed old bloke that remembers the days of unlimited tackles and three point tries. For every person that loves the theatre of the big screen and video referee as it means we get most decisions correct, there’s a fan that longs for the days when a ref had to have the guts to make a decision on his own without consulting his mate who is watching the telly.

One of the things that seems to divide us is the issue of player burnout. On the face of it, the Easter schedule is lunatic. Expecting a professional sportsman to back up 72 hours after putting his body on the line in the world’s toughest contact sport is ridiculous, and scores like the ones both Hull clubs were on the end of on Easter Monday don’t do the sport any good at all. On the flip side it’s a great festival of rugby league, and tops and tails the Easter holiday nicely – a good Easter period can make a team’s season – four points accelerating them up the table.

In the NRL of course, there is only one game per club over the Easter period although this year, with ANZAC day being close to Easter, brought the start of the next round of matches forward by four hours. Most players involved in the State of Origin series each year don’t play for their club the week prior as they are “in camp” and subsequent to the interstate fixture, potentially missing four games a year – each club gets a “bye” over the Origin period meaning no player would have to back up three times.

Of course the concept of player welfare is a fairly modern one, you don’t have to look too far back into the games history to see some fairly high profile instances of players playing on despite significant injury and head knocks in particular.

With the recent news that Jamie Shaul is likely to miss another month of football due to his concussion issue, it did get me thinking about some occasions when I’ve seen a player go into la-la land, and after a cold sponge of water down the back of the neck, get up and play on.

A mate of mine reminded me this week of a game years back between Wakefield and Cas on YTV’s “Scrumdown” when Aussie forward Ronnie “Rambo” Gibbs got absolutely smashed, and was reeling about the pitch like a drunk lass on New Years Eve in the Crown on Marfleet Lane. Unlike Sharon from Greatfield, he managed to stay on his feet (eventually) and finished the game. That simply wouldn’t happen these days with the “HIA” protocols the game introduced. That’s a massive step in the right direction, and even though Shauly’s spell out must be killing him, and its not helping our cause either—despite Jake Connor and Connor Wynne deputising ably – it is absolutely the right thing to do to ensure he remains healthy.

There have been high profile instances in the US of NFL players suing the league for failing to protect them from serious head injury, and even in Soccer 60’s and 70’s legends like Jeff Astle of West Brom have died after dementia that has been linked to heading heavy water soaked leather footballs in their playing days. League has its victims too with Andrew Johns and Wally Lewis the highest profile cases. Both men were in the day arguably the best players of their era, and both have carved out significant careers off the pitch in the broadcasting industry due to their expertise and reading of the game, meaning they really have interesting and insightful things to say in commentary. Both have also got epilepsy that only manifested itself after they stopped playing, and both have linked it with the head knocks they got whilst playing our game.

There are much less publicised cases too – Liam Fulton of the Wests Tigers retired at the young age of 29 after returning home after a match and being unable to remember his wife and family. James MacManus of the Newcastle Knights was a similar case.

One close to home for me is Balmain Tigers’ 1969 premiership winning halfback Keith Outten. I worked with “Chicka” at the Leagues club when I first came down under, and he was a great bloke, as sharp as a whip, very funny and a real student of the game. Over a few years I watched him slowly deteriorate, until one day he was found wandering around the club unable to find the door to the car park. Alzheimers, caused by repeated head trauma was Keith’s diagnosis, and I’ve been a staunch defender of the HIA process ever since.

When you consider that we now play so many fewer games than we used to, its clear that the demands of the modern game are taking their toll on our players. The recent comments by James Graham that he was the keeper of his own body, and he knew the risks he was taking were brave, but, in my opinion at least, counterproductive to what we’re trying to achieve as a sport. I know my wife is very worried about our son playing the game, and Jammer’s comments really didn’t help.

Look at the 1984-85 season where Hull FC as a club played 47 games between September and May – an average of a game every four and a half days. Thirty games in the league, four in the Yorkshire Cup, five in the John Player trophy, seven in the Challenge cup (including two replays) and one in the Premiership. Of course we got to the finals in three of the cup competitions which blows out the total a little, but if we’d have got to the final of the Premiership too, then we would’ve played nay on 50 games. We might’ve been unlucky and drawn in the preliminary round of the cup too, which used to happen back then. Imagine asking a team to play 50 games a season these days in a contact sport like Rugby League.

Personally I’d love the see the season start a week earlier and only play once over Easter, but I doubt that many club chairmen would agree with me, as the period is a real earner for them…

Until next time, Up the Cream, Gerremonsard and Come on you ‘Ull.

Rich – Twitter @pommyrich

This article first appeared in Up the Cream Issue 71. See our online shop here

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