So let me get this straight, slapping is out right? Gee whiz, what’s left? Wet lettuce leaves at ten paces?
The modern rugby league player has no tools left at his disposal. Every little annoying, niggly piece of gamesmanship has been removed, to the point that the players might soon have to play the game without using anything other, than their football smarts and abilities.
Sure, there is still wrestling to fall back on, thank God, and fudging the offside rule will remain a tactic wherever and whenever league is played, yet these are more coached trends in the game rather than being one on one tactics designed to directly impact or injure an individual opponent.
As the game has been ‘cleaned up’ over the years, think of what we have lost. The sterile nature of the game can be explained with a simple analysis of the forgotten skills of a bygone era.
‘The spear tackle’
Was there anything more balletic than two slovenly Magpie forwards lifting a small Manly three-quarter into the air and dropping him like a tent peg, head first into the ground? Different to modern ‘lifting’ in tackles where players pass the horizontal and injuries occur, the spear tackle was more of a pile driving action full of courage and skill where the player was dropped rather than driven.
‘The squirrel grip’
League players get pretty up close and personal on the field. Somewhere along the way, the notion of firmly grabbing player’s testicles became a thing.
Tough to play the ball when someone has hold of the Crown Jewels I guess. Slows down the ruck and might just annoy the victim a tad. I know when people squirrel grip me at work, I get quite upset.
To some, it seems a cheap act, yet to appreciate the true artistry, one needs to have played the game at a high level.
Only a bunch of white collar killjoys would remove this element from the game. Seeing players run toward referees with forearm on show, freshly chewed with bite marks still raw, is a natural part of the game and a completely acceptable human reaction to someone putting you in a choke hold. A beautiful part of the game, essentially lost forever.
There was nothing more courageous in football than digging a couple of fingers into the eye of an opponent whose arms were pinned by another tackler and attempting to stretch the tendons and connective tissue, to the point of a semi-removed eyeball.
The death of this activity was undoubtedly the twenty-week suspension handed out to Steve Linnane in 1987 for his heroic gouge on Penrith’s Greg Alexander.
Knocking a player off balance with the dexterous use of the foot is an art form, as is the innocent facial contortions after being nabbed by the referee. Thankfully this lost art is experiencing a renaissance through the work of Josh Reynolds, who seems to be oblivious to the fact that it is, in fact, extinct.
‘Attacking the ball with the feet’
As the action of scoring a try becomes more and more complex, filled with doubt and a matter of inches and camera angles, anything a defender can do to prevent the grounding of the ball must be coached into the players.
Hence, it is a real shame that a fullback leading with their knees and feet as they slide into an opponent as they attempt to ground the ball is no longer encouraged.
The sight of knees pounding into the torso of the try scorer and teeth spewing forth from their mouth was perceived as ugly by many around the game, however the courage shown by the defender was unquestionable.
Thumping a bloke in the head is not socially unacceptable. Sure a king hit coward punch crosses the boundary of fair play and is a serious issue in our society, however watching Matthew Scott, Jared Warea-Hargreaves or Sam Burgess bash the snot out of Michael Ennis would have done a lot for the game.
‘Cannonball charge downs of kicks’
If you are over the age of forty, you can probably remember seeing ‘Rambo’ Ronnie Gibbs launching himself at the knees of opposition kickers in an attempt to charge down the ball. It was all class.
Not only was there a chance that the ball might indeed be blocked, the propensity for ACL injuries was incredibly high.
Many feel the extra protection the kickers receive today is short sighted, as it keeps some of our most talented halves in the game longer and allows them to showcase their skills to the young fans for many years.
Doing athletics as a kid, I was always taught to get my knees up higher when I ran. Footballers once did this and the damage to tacklers was significant. Launching into the defensive line Bob Cooper or Paul Sironen style was an effective way to a) clear a path through the defence and b) smash a jaw or two along the way.
Modern players seem almost afraid to knee an opponent in the face. Only David Klemmer seems to understand its potential, yet his is a poor imitation of the skill possessed by far more talented men from the past.
One of the saddest losses to the game has been the banning of digital insertion. One man made it famous and claimed it was somehow a cultural gag often used between mates.
Strewth! Nice mates. Next time I am down the pub and things get a little out of hand, I might just book an Uber and head home.
What it really showed was the great research and commitment that John Hopoate put into his game and his utterly professional approach to the code. Something, mind you, that has continued in his retirement.
‘Water bottle throwing’
Players can now cop weeks for launching a water bottle towards officials, opponents or benches. I ask you, what would be more fun than seeing Shaun Kenny-Dowall flying down a wing, only to be struck firmly in the head by a full water bottle launched from an opponent’s bench?
The crowd would go nuts and seeing the activity copied around the local grounds on Saturdays would only benefit the game in the long term.
I guess with all of these ‘skills’ removed from game, the fans will just have to concentrate on acrobatic, try scoring wingers defying gravity, immense hit and stick tackles in the middle third and artistic and dexterous kicking from some of the most talented men in our game.
Throw in one of the most competitive and unpredictable competitions in the world and it is clear why so many are disappointed in the modern product. The current crack-down on ‘the slap’ might just be the last straw for many fans, who must make a clear choice.
The modern game, or the game of the past, blessed with a myriad of courageous tactics all designed to gain advantage.
I know which one I would prefer.