Sky Sports pundit and former Super League star Terry O’Connor has expressed concern about the future of rugby league after the RFL revealed a series of major changes designed to reduce concussions and make the sport safer.
The RFL yesterday unveiled a number of controversial laws and new operational rules to be introduced from next year, including a mandated minimum off-season of four weeks, followed by an additional minimum two-week pre-season period without contact training.
As well as that, there will be new ‘match limits’ over a 12-month period for players, independent concussion spotters at games and a reduction in tackle height from shoulder to armpit.
The new rules have already been met with heavy criticism from many fans and players online.
Exclusive: Terry O’Connor concerned about major law changes – ‘We’ve got to be very careful in how we want the game to look’
O’Connor, who won titles with Wigan Warriors and represented Great Britain, is broadly supportive of the overhaul, but feels the sport must be also cautious in not changing too much it how it looks and is presented in case it alienates supporters.
“We’ve got to be very careful in how we want the game to look,” the ex-prop told Love Rugby League.
“On the maximum limit of games, look, as a player you’d be frustrated because you want to play in every game. You’re paid to be a professional rugby league player. I am all for player welfare, 100%. I’ve been in the game for 30-odd years and I was probably the biggest advocate of player welfare.
“But I fell in love with the sport watching it at Widnes and it was absolutely brutal. It didn’t knock me away from the game. I hate people saying we have to make sure we encourage people to play.
“The amateur game in Widnes was thriving watching the Myler brothers, the O’Neill brothers… they were big human beings. That was when they were part-time.
“We have to be very careful of how we want the game to look going forward as a spectacle for fans that we’re drastically changing while the likes of UFC and some boxing matches go through the roof.”
“The sports that we’re up against and are trying to compete with, the overall look of our sport we just have to be careful. Player welfare and player safety should be at the forefront of everyone’s minds but don’t take away the gladiatorial aspect.
“Don’t say, ‘well you’ve played 25 games this season, so you can’t play anymore’. I know that me as a player, even if I didn’t get whacked around the head, I’d be fuming as I’m paid to play rugby.
“Another problem is are they going to change the rules for internationals? Then they may say we need you to play internationals, so we’re going to bend the rules for internationals. It’s mad.”
Super League Grand Final winner Terry O’Connor delivers verdict on RFL approved law changes heading into 2024
O’Connor, whose son Jarrad plays for Leeds Rhinos, has no problem with the mandatory no-contact training for six weeks at the end of the year, nor with independent concussion spotters.
“The six weeks off – that’s roughly what they do anyway. You’ll have players, yes they won’t do contact, but they’ll have a week off and be back straight into [fitness] training. That’s the job. If it’s just contact, that shouldn’t be an issue. That wouldn’t be a problem.
“I haven’t got an issue with having concussion spotters. If someone needs getting off and looking after, then absolutely, because sometimes players are too tough for their own good.
“Punching and fighting – we got rid of all of that. That’s a part of the game where players would get concussed. But we sell, as a sport, big hits. We show Adrian Morley etc.
“We could be done for false advertising if you’re saying you can’t do that. The shoulder charge is another one, I get why they got rid of that. And we’ve got the game as safe as it can be, now at the minute. But if a defender’s head makes contact with a ball carrier’s head it’s a send off, and again, I get it.
“I get why they’re doing it. But I don’t know a defender who would lead his head intentionally in a tackle. If you’re playing a high-speed, big contact sport when you want to get fans on the edge of their seat, people turn up for that.
“I don’t want to see any player with any injuries short-term or long-term because of the way the game is, but if we’re playing a sport that we say is gladiatorial then we just have to be careful what we say going forward. You’re asking fans to pay for a sport they don’t recognise anymore. I’d love to see players be a part of this [rule change] process.
“I know litigation is a big part of what’s driving this, and the fact we can’t get insurance. It’s killing the game, it’s killing the amateur game.”
Law changes will be detrimental to budding rugby league stars, says Sky Sports pundit O’Connor
Under the change at all levels of Community rugby league and at age grade at professional clubs, including reserve grade, the legal limit for any contact is to be lowered from shoulder height to armpit height (ie below the shoulder).
Any contact above the armpit will be penalised. The RFL has recommended that his change should be applied at all levels of professional Rugby League from the 2025 season.
Another change involves juniors which will see contact rugby league replaced by touch and tag in a stepped approach, starting with Under 6s and 7s in the 2024 season, and continuing with that age group to Under 8s from 2025, and Under 9s from 2026.
This will now be enforced as mandatory from 2024 at all age groups, meaning that under-10s fixtures will be a maximum of nine players per team with a five-metre retreat by the defensive line; and under-11s will be a maximum of 11 players per team, again with a five-metre retreat by the defensive line.
From under-12s to under-18s, a trial will be held in at least one member league in 2024 to reduce the retreat by the defensive line to seven metres, and to minimise knockout cup fixtures – with a view to more widespread introduction from 2025.
O’Connor believes taking away teaching kids to tackle properly early will be problematic when they come into full contact at a later age.
“So we’re saying young kids have to play tag, so how are we preparing them for when they’re older how to defend properly? They need time to learn how to tackle safely. I just fear that decisions are being made without the involvement of current players.
“Everyone who is a custodian of the sport needs to think of the long-term future of the sport. It’s not just about when you’re playing or coaching, it’s what it’s going to look like in 20 years.
Accidents happen in sport. And you’re asking people to be bigger, stronger and with that comes a bit of risk. You’re going to get wrong as a defender, you’re going to get it wrong as an attacker, but as long there are rules there that are going to protect the players but also hopefully as well protect the game. That’s important.”