NRL can reduce concussion headache by expanding the number of interchange players by StuffsEarth

Estimated read time 20 min read

With all the confusion over interchanges, HIAs, what counts as a substitution and what doesn’t, rugby league should consider following the path of another sport that it apparently shares some distant DNA. 

Scrap the 18th man standby player who sits gloomily on the four-player interchange bench waiting for an unlikely run and expand the game-day squad to 21 while still capping the number of interchanges at eight. 

Such a move would give league a similar set-up to union with eight players on the bench. 

Now before you rush to the comments to say how dare anyone consider anything that links league back to union in any way shape or form, there are benefits.

If you’ll allow me to explain?

Thank you in advance.

It would open up opportunities for coaches to decide between interchanging their stars on and off the field throughout a game even though their performance will drop off as fatigue sets in over the 80 minutes or do they bring in fresh legs from a lesser player. 

Concussion rules would not need to change – if a player suffers a head knock and needs to be assessed, a team would still receive the medical interchange which doesn’t count in the overall tally of eight.

But the coach would have greater flexibility on their bench to cover all positions on the field to avoid the situation of playing someone out of position. 

Coaches roll the dice with their four players on the interchange by only really catering for the forwards and hoping their back seven get through the 80 minutes. 

And when they do carry a specialist back on the bench, they can often be thrown into the “roving lock” style position, which can have disastrous consequences, such as Ryan Papenhuyzen’s broken leg late last season when he the lightweight fullback was mixing it with the big boys in the middle of the ruck.

Ryan Papenhuyzen after suffering his injury last year against Brisbane. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Expanding the bench reserves to eight would also fix the problem that Parramatta and Brisbane encountered when they had a player taken out by a dubious hit while the perpetrator stayed on the field. 

Eels winger Bailey Simonsson went off early a couple of weeks ago due to a Jarome Luai high shot and the Eels had to reconfigure their backline on the run, as did the Broncos when Taylan May’s controversial head clash with Reece Walsh sent Brendan Piakura into the centres where he was a defensive liability.

Another option could be to keep the four-player interchange as is but allow teams to have multiple reserves on the bench who can only come on when one of the top 17 is injured by foul play or has to go off for a concussion check.

You could have the throwback situation where, on the increasingly rare occasions when the State Cup is played as a curtain-raiser, the lower-graders can keep their dirty socks and shorts on but run out with a fresh jersey.

It was a particularly jarring look for a team like St George decades ago when a Rex Terp or Jason Hoogerwerf would come onto the field late in the first-grade fixture with a not so white uniform due to Kogarah’s dusty surface on the bottom half, contrasted with a gleaming jersey up top.

Nowadays, when the State Cup team is playing the next day, the club could decide whether the player is able to back up for the reggies.

But not all retro returns should be given another airing.

Way back in the 1980s, a “head bin” rule was brought in so that players who suffered head injuries could be replaced by a fresh player for 10 minutes.

As is often the case, coaches exploited the rule rather than see it as a way to protect their players when concussed. 

Manly second-rower Ron Gibbs went off to the head bin twice in the 1987 Grand Final with attacking livewire Paul Shaw sent out on each occasion to disrupt Canberra’s tiring defensive line.

At least nowadays with the independent doctor in the bunker ordering the 15-minute stint off for an HIA, such unsavoury tactics would be eliminated.

The counter point to expanding the number of interchange players is that coaches should carry a utility on their bench who can cover a few positions and have enough versatility within the squad, whether in the starting 13 or overall, to cater for all possibilities within a game.

Canterbury certainly think so after buying up every off-contract utility player on the market in the off-season. 

There is immense value in a versatile forward like Kurt Capewell, who was shunted out to the centres last week for the Warriors after their fullback was taken off. The veteran managed to hold his own out wide after starting out his NRL career in Cronulla’s backline. 

PENRITH, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 15: Bailey Simonsson of the Eels
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Bailey Simonsson is smashed by Jarome Luai. (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

But as we saw with a much younger player in Piakura being relentlessly targeted  by Nathan Cleary’s attacking raids, being young and athletic cannot compensate for the know-how that is needed when shuffled a couple of spots wider on the edge.

Brisbane coach Kevin Walters admitted after the game that he should have carried more versatility on his bench but his team was ultimately punished for an incident which the NRL later said should have led to May being charged.

In instances like this, it would be better if teams had the safeguard of extra players at their disposal on the bench so they’re not caught short through no real fault of their own.

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