Tonight is a big night for rugby league.
The events of ten days ago are still echoing around rugby league, if not all contact sports in Australia. At the centre is a young rugby league player with his playing future, and potentially his way of life, cut short whilst in his prime.
While Alex McKinnon remains in hospital in Melbourne, still not able to be transferred to Sydney, rugby league officialdom convenes in Sydney to cast judgement over the two seconds of rugby league that has wrought such devastation on Alex and his family.
The Newcastle Knights, and the league community in general have fallen in step to show concern and support for Alex and his family. But a thought must also be spared for the other player in this matter, Jordan McLean. The 22 year old was stood down over the weekend, not because of any finding of guilt, but in consideration of the gravity of the situation – his actions have contributed to an horrific injury to another.
No one has suggested that Jordan, or any other league player for that matter, goes onto the field to cause grievous harm to another player. The aim of a forward is to intimidate, dominate and reciprocate the big hits that make the rugby league highlight reels. Putting someone in a hospital bed, let alone a wheelchair, is not in the mind of any professional player.
Jordan McLean is guilty, and indeed has been found guilty of a dangerous throw. That was always going to be the case. As the player who placed his hands between the legs of another player and lifted, he is the one who bears the burden of the end results, despite the fact that the individual split-second actions of three other players (McKinnon included) contributed to the end result. But what should the penalty be?
Rugby league commentators have called for a calm and clear decision, not one based on the hyperbole that comes with serious injuries. It is an age old question in rugby league – should the penalty fit the seriousness of the injury caused?
Not that consistency is anything the NRL judiciary could find with a map and guide, but the decision to be made tonight on McLean’s penalty will be keenly watched. A precedent will be set, and league players should have cause to be concerned.
League officials will have many things to take into consideration: the grading of the dangerous throw, the contribution of other players, and the actions of the tackled player etc. But it will also take into consideration the perceptions of the ‘footy mums’ – the people who apparently decide whether or not the kiddies get to play rugby league.
We have had all sorts of talking heads come out of the woodwork this week encouraging mums to take their kids out of rugby league. ‘It’s too dangerous’, ‘more has to be done’, ‘the tackle must be outlawed’ and ‘you can’t have that many players in a tackle.’ I get to consider myself a footy mum these days (if you count Munchkin League for the under 5s).
I may be biased about my footy. But my response is:
a. Riding a bike is dangerous, more kids have been killed riding a bike than playing rugby league. My daughter’s first broken arm came from playing on a chair, not playing footy.
b. Kids do not play the same game with the same rules as NRL players, and they certainly do not run at the same speed or hit each other with the same physicality. But more could be done – I’m all for weight divisions, even if it means my kids will be playing against older kids.
c. As far as I’m aware placing your hands between another players’ legs and lifting has been outlawed. Any tackle where a player is lifted above the horizontal automatically results in a penalty and players on report, if not a sin-bin/send off.
d. Limiting the number of players who can be involved in a tackle is an option, but should not be a knee jerk reaction. Any such change will greatly affect the fabric of a game that many already judge to be losing its edge.
What occurred in the Melbourne vs Newcastle match was a freak accident. It was not pre-meditated, nor was it the intent of any player to arrive at that outcome. I sincerely hope that the judiciary takes that into account.
Whilst the playing future of Alex McKinnon is sadly over, the fate of Jordan McLean is less clear. His playing career will forever have the footnote of that tackle – a 2 second stain on his career – should he even have the courage to continue. Even if the penalty he receives is moderate and he takes the field again, will he ever play the same?
Let’s not end the playing career of two young forwards.