Steve Deane: Banning shoulder charge another win for Safety Nazis

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To the likes of Ben Matulino and even little Chris Sandow, the shoulder charge isn't just a bit a boyish fun, it's a vital tool. Photo / Getty Images
To the likes of Ben Matulino and even little Chris Sandow, the shoulder charge isn't just a bit a boyish fun, it's a vital tool. Photo / Getty Images

I never saw the West Midlands Police fullback coming. Didn't hear him either. Come to think of it, I didn't really even feel the hit that transformed me into a crumpled, semi-conscious heap. I don't think I was out for long. Maybe a few seconds. The last thing I remembered was looking around for a support player. Turned out, as my teammates pointed out with much mirth, I'd been the recipient of a classic shoulder charge from a squat little Brummie copper.

My Kiwi mate's quip a few moments earlier about the local cops being so soft he was going to move to Birmingham to "get into some crime" now rang a bit hollow, a bit like my ears.

It was a low-level, amateur game, half a lifetime and a million miles away from what we see these days when the muscle-bound brutes of the NRL smash each other into oblivion, but the effect was still significant. I played on, but was unsteady in body and mind. I barely touched the ball again.

We had been winning. We lost.

To me the turning point was that hit, but I probably give myself too much credit. I wasn't really much of a player, and we probably would have lost anyway.

My destruction that day still comes up in late night conversations with old footy buddies. Remember when ... It was a thing of beauty, really. So were the hits my under-17s teammate Chris Anderson used to dish out every week. Man, I loved playing with that guy, mainly cause it meant I didn't have to play against him. That's footy. Intimidation is part of the game.

Ban the shoulder charge? You've got to be kidding. Except they already did it at the level I used to play. Years ago. The Safety Nazis came for the grassroots first.

A bunch of folks have asked me how I feel about the NRL ban. Sad, mainly. And a little worried. Do I disagree with the decision? Yes. Do I understand it? Absolutely. The same as I understand the genuine outrage with which the NRL's players seem to have widely reacted.

To the likes of Ben Matulino and even little Chris Sandow, the shoulder charge isn't just a bit a boyish fun, it's a vital tool.

Put me in the camp who favour tougher sanctions for contact with the head. But an outright ban? That's an extreme reaction provoked by fear.

No doubt the NRL has an eye on the multi-million dollar lawsuits bubbling away in the US over repeat concussions in the NFL. The evidence pointing to life changing brain damage from repeat concussions is compelling, the stories of lives spiralling into depression, despair, addiction and early death heart-wrenching. But it's a huge stretch to think that without a ban the game faces an epidemic of ex-players shooting themselves in the chest so their brains can be posthumously examined.

As the NRL's research shows, head trauma as a result of shoulder charges is isolated and fairly rare. The parallels to the NFL, where high velocity helmet-to-helmet contact was once commonplace, don't wash.

With the NRL having caved to the modern obsession with workplace safety the question becomes "what next?" Pretty soon, the only safe option will be to sit very still in a padded room.

It's also mildly alarming that the NRL has decided to announce the ban without yet having figured out how to do it. New rules are expected within a month or so.

If they're anything like rugby, where failing to wrap your arms around an opponent can be a red card offence, a game that relentlessly markets its toughness will have opened itself to ridicule.

Even those of us who have copped a few headknocks can see that.

- NZ Herald

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