By STEVE MASCORD
WE’RE only going to mention Alex McKinnon’s name once in this story. His ordeal and brave recovery does not belong in the weekly banter that makes up rugby league’s news cycle.
In the opinion of this writer, it’s thrown around too much. He’s best left out of it.
But this story is about lifting. It’s about the rules of rugby league. We have to acknowledge we probably wouldn’t be writing it if not for what happened to him a year ago – but it’s the issue we’re interested in here.
Is there too much lifting in rugby league? If so, why? Can we get rid of it completely? Can we reduce the amount of lifting? Should we reduce the amount of lifting? Do we want to eliminate it completely?
The shoulder charge was banned because of the risk of injury. The risk of injury from lifting is at least as great. But unlike the shoulder charge, no-one seems to think lifting can be banned completely.
Rugby League Week spoke to players and coaches from a number of clubs and there was a reasonably wide variance of opinion about whether lifting was a problem and whether it could be reduced in incidence.
No-one thought it could be completely rubbed out.
There was one theme that came through from a number of sources, though: the ban on cannon-ball tackles below the knees last year made it more likely that a player would be lifted – if just because of physics – and it is now cool to just come out and say that after several months of it being a touchy subject.
“When you’re in that position, it’s never comfortable,” says Wests Tigers veteran Dene Halatau.
“…when you’ve got no control over where you’re going and you’re getting dragged around by a couple of blokes. It is an uncomfortable position to be in.
“It’s a hard one. I don’t think it’s good for the game.
“Being one of the smaller blokes, you find yourself trying to get underneath one of the bigger blokes and if it’s a one-on-one tackle, they could go up.”
Be that as it may, there is a strong body of opinion that there’s just nothing we can do about it.
“I think it’s fine,” says Penrith coach Ivan Cleary. “These guys today, they’re big strong athletes and the reality is that there has to be some element of lift to get these guys on the ground.
“If there’s no lift … the main thing is that the players these days are very aware of it. The duty of care amongst the players is excellent. As long as that’s the case, things will be probably pretty good.”
Sydney Roosters’ Trent Robinson has no doubt the ban on tackling below the knees contributed to a temporary rise – parden the pun – in lifting.
“Players know because they can’t get tackled below the knee anymore, there’s a lot of basing out, spreading their legs, so it’s hard to get both (legs).
“I think they’re on the right track. The only way to outlaw lifting – or to reduce it – is to go (tackling) below the knees again.”
But Cleary counters: “I don’t think that’s really gone out of the game, either, the cannonball. The players have just got better at it now where they just make first contact just above the knee.
“I don’t think we should tamper with it too much. Like anything, it just needs to be kept in context. The reality is that some blokes get lifted but I think the players are far more aware of it today than they’ve ever been as long as that’s the case, we’ll be OK.”
Sydney Roosters winger Shaun Kenny Dowall confirms that professionals are extremely cognisant of what can go wrong if they put an opponent in a dangerous position.
“With the horrible incident that happened, we all have to be cautious and it’s a good thing that the referees are keeping an eye on it,” the Kiwi said.
“It’s up to the players. They can determine with how much force they put a player into that position. So I think the more players get penalised, the more aware that players are going to be about putting players in a dangerous position.
“I think you have to take responsibility for your own tackles – realising and feeling he’s getting into that position and pulling out.”
So that’s it then? All under control? Nothing to see here?
Not quite. Wests Tigers coach Jason Taylor is one who believes we can and should do more to reduce the practice.
“I’ll cause a big stir but I was concerned about the change of the rule in regard to going below the knee because I thought that was going to lead to more lifting,” he says in an otherwise empty dressingroom, late on a Sunday afternoon.
“I thought that it did. But then it seemed to drop off and at the coaches’ meeting, Todd Greenberg showed us some numbers that clearly said the lifting hadn’t increased.
“So then I went ‘OK’ and I backed off from that thought. Whether it did increase or not, it’s dropped down now. There has been a lot of talk about it.
“But it’s a good point you make: whether we could be still getting it to go down. The game’s definitely not going miss it but …
“Now that you can’t do that, it’s much harder to get a big strong man down and people go to the lift, to get his leg off the ground. It makes sense.”
This is the sort of tackle, Taylor says, that can be legislated against.
“I’m more talking about a three man tackle,” he explains. “I’m not talking about a hit and drive tackle. I’m talking about where he’s stopped and he’s standing.
“I don’t think you can outlaw something that … if I lift your foot off the ground one inch and that just allows us to finish the tackle well, before the tackle’s momentum has stopped, you can’t outlaw that.
“You’re splitting hairs there and that’s where you get inconsistency. That’s the problem. You can’t tell me that’s going to be a penalty.
“But me doing that same action in the next tackle, depending on what the other guys are doing, could mean I lift him one inch but they pull him the other way and then he flips up and we go ‘why are they lifting?’
“Well, there’s a lot of lifting in a lot of tackles that you don’t notice.
“As soon as people have their arm in there and they are lifting people upwards, that should be cracked down on. I don’t think you can crack down on it if they only do it ever so slightly and there’s no harm done.
“I don’t think you can just say ‘you’re not allowed to lift anyone’.”
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK