This column was going to be one of celebration, not least about the rise of international rugby league – our only real hope of significantly raising profile, attracting new supporters and consequent finance – on a weekend when six sanctioned Tests or internationals were played.
Danny Jones was a Welsh international. He gained 12 caps, including kicking a goal against the Cook Islands in the last World Cup. News of the 29-year-old, who suffered a fatal cardiac arrest whilst playing for Keighley yesterday, overshadowed everything else.
The word tragedy is over used in so many walks of life but not in this case. There is something of the self-destruct in rugby league, our passage of constant justification and persecution means that, most often, we do things the tough way. Windows of opportunity to promote to the wider sporting world, while under-resourced, are few. Until six o’clock on Sunday night, we could allow ourselves a sense of satisfaction. We’d found a little corner of the main stage, with the Rugby League International Federation poised to capitalise on wins for New Zealand, Samoa, Fiji, Niue, Lebanon and Belgium that, no matter what the size of the crowds, had been built on passion, noise, colour and vibrancy from the stands that transferred on to the pitch; it mattered.
How much, was best-illustrated by an astonishing tackle in the corner by Samoan skipper Frank Prichard and fellow beast Sam Kasiano to halt Jorge Taufua as it looked as though the Tongan winger would post the winning try in the final minute. Just like Danny Jones did every week, they – in this case literally – put their bodies on the line, Pritchard with the despairing grab and Kasiano as the human road block with no thought of self-preservation. It was for their team, their closest mates and, lest we should ever forget when we berate from the sidelines, our entertainment and enjoyment.
In the professional era, even at semi-professional level, it is not just a game. For many, it is also a livelihood, but it should never be a matter of life and death. Much is made of the nebulous phrase duty of care, highlighted again by the surprise immediate retirement of Lance Hohaia, due to recurrent concussion type symptoms and there seems more to emerge than a terse announcement with ‘no further comment’ from St Helens. There are greater protocols in place than ever before, the threat of potential litigation hangs heavy for a sport with no financial reserves but, like fellow Kiwi before him Shontayne Hape, and various other players who have faced multiple head-knocks, the long term implications of what we are asking players to do in this ultra-physical era, on our behalf, are unknown.
Training is more intense than playing used to be – at all levels – collisions are, as a result, so much more damaging, we are hearing words like whiplash used. We say we pay attention to the welfare of our most precious commodity, the players, and yet, with the current new structure we are, ridiculously, asking them to play more games. As well as medical provisions – and mandatory heart screening at all professional levels should be a minimum no matter what the cost – we have to look at structures and rules. It might be time to revert to five metres rather than the head of steam that is built up over 10, especially at the beginning of games.
Proposed lessening of the amount of substitutes is fine for producing greater spectacle but not if it is at the expense of greater danger due to fatigue and subsequent loss of tackling technique. Players will not come off or stand down of their own accord, they need greater protection so that they can enjoy their eventual retirement and next phase of life sound in body and mind.
It is the very least the memory of Danny Jones deserves.
Rugby league might not have tilted on its axis after a momentous weekend, but there is a significant wind of change in the air in the world order. Marty Tapou’s ‘cut throat’ gesture to his Aussie assailants said it in spades. New Zealand’s sensational, delayed, comprehensive win in Brisbane means that they will come here in the autumn hunting the number one spot in the world rankings, the first time that it could be anyone other than Australia since their inception. They beat the Aussies for a third Test in a row for the first time in 61 years and won their first mid-season encounter since ’98, a sensational achievement built on a group of players exposed to greater weekly intensity, enhanced by ten seasons of the Warriors in the NRL.
If we can’t poster-boy Shaun Johnson now and sell out stadiums on the back of it we should hang our heads, rather than crow that we have already shifted around a quarter of the Olympic Stadium seats so far.
For the international dimension to take its rightful and necessary place, the Aussie dominance has to come to an end. Their ageing core may well not even get a chance to redress the balance because of the decision to give themselves effectively a year off before playing again. That was done for the best of intentions; potential burn out and duty of care.
We all need less regular season games and meaningful global windows instead, club and international, and that realisation is growing. Every continent now has ‘derby’ fixtures which, if they ran concurrently at the beginning of May, would give us the added impetus for Commonwealth Games inclusion and Sport Accord acceptance.
The Kiwi’s try in the last seconds of the first half was the defining one, their reward for never stopping playing and chasing every cause, whilst the win confirmed coach Stephen Kearney as the coolest man in the world.
Domestically, Salford’s reverse psychology nearly worked, Leeds and Huddersfield served up an absolute thriller for their cup tie in a fortnight – which may or may not include Kevin Sinfield – while Wigan and Hull KR, whose coach Chris Chester was searingly honest about their performance, did not.
But all of it pales into insignificance. Whether we knew Danny Jones or not, as a sport, we are united in grief, rugby league still means everything and yet nothing.
If those who merely love the sport are feeling such devastation, it is impossible to imagine how family, friends, team mates will cope.
There are no broad smiles the morning after.