There is not a rugby league fan, player, club staff member or administrator who doesn’t have a hollow feeling in the pit of their stomach following news of Knights backrower Alex McKinnon’s neck injury, suffered in the Monday night clash with Melbourne.
The rugged 22-year-old, a veteran of 49 NRL games for St George Illawarra and Newcastle, landed awkwardly on his head in a tackle involving three Storm players in the final minute of the first half at AAMI Park. The game was held up for several minutes as a distressed McKinnon was stretchered off with painstaking care.
Scans have revealed fractures of the C4 and C5 vertebrae, but the full extent of the injury will not be known for days or weeks. McKinnon’s spinal cord has not been severed, but doctors are unsure of the level of damage. On Tuesday night Newcastle confirmed he had suffered a “devastating spinal injury”. The entire rugby league community is holding its breath for McKinnon’s full recovery as the controversial refereeing decisions, costly goalkicking misses and last-minute losses of Round 3 are put in stark perspective.
The Melbourne players involved, brothers Jesse and Kenny Bromwich and fellow forward Jordan McLean, will surely be doing it tough as well. There was clearly no malice in the tackle, but the Storm trio undoubtedly put McKinnon in a dangerous position. McLean will find himself in the most trouble judiciary-wise after lifting McKinnon’s leg, despite Storm captain Cameron Smith’s ill-advised on-field argument that McKinnon contributed to the accident by tipping himself over. The league announced on Tuesday McLean had been referred directly to the judiciary, with the hearing to be held at a later date out of respect to McKinnon’s family. He has been stood down for the Storm’s game against Canterbury on Saturday.
The entire rugby league community is holding its breath for McKinnon’s full recovery as the controversial refereeing decisions, costly goalkicking misses and last-minute losses of Round 3 are put in stark perspective.
While McKinnon’s welfare is paramount, the action the NRL takes against the Storm players will be intriguing. The NRL set a precedent last year by controversially ruling the level of a player’s injury would have an impact on the length of suspension the offending player received. Knights prop Kade Snowden was handed a whopping seven-week ban after breaking Cowboys hooker Ray Thompson’s jaw with a shoulder charge, despite the tackle appearing far less intentional and dangerous than several shoulder charges which incurred suspensions half that length.
Bulldogs centre Krisnan Inu was suspended for five weeks after upending Greg Inglis in an ugly tackle last year, despite the Rabbitohs fullback avoiding any injury. The NRL can’t have it both ways and the judiciary panel can’t play favourites because they deem the Melbourne forwards’ actions accidental – the severity of McKinnon’s injuries should be taken into account if last year’s statute still applies. The NRL may have painted itself into a corner and could face a torrent of criticism if McLean and co are slapped with a feather.
Canterbury legend Steve Mortimer had an interesting take on the situation on Tuesday morning, suggesting the speed of the game and defenders finding new ways to slow down the play-the-ball are contributing to dangerous tackles such as the one on McKinnon. Mortimer said scrapping the 10-metre rule and reverting to a five-metre gap at the rucks would reduce the risk of tackles going horribly wrong.
But banning the lifting of the leg of an upright tackled player – regardless of whether he ends up in a dangerous position – is a more logical solution. Penalising leg-lifting would act as a significant deterrent and cut off the problem at the source, keeping in time with the NRL’s edict of tweaking the rules to prevent injuries, not just dishing out big suspensions after the fact.
This incident puts the spotlight on the NRL’s recent obsession with concussions and rubbing out the shoulder-charge, not to mention the ‘cannonball’ tackle furore. There are more pertinent player safety issues to address, and the immediate prospects facing young Alex McKinnon are 10 times more terrifying than Ian Roberts’ overhyped interview.
Like any full contact sport, rugby league has its share of harrowing neck injury stories. Young Penrith prop John Farragher was left a quadriplegic after a scrum collapsed in a 1978 match against Newtown at Henson Park. The terrible accident cast a pall over the game and remains one of the most tragic on-field incidents in premiership history.
Brisbane and Queensland captain Gorden Tallis’ career was in jeopardy at the peak of his powers in 2001, when a neck injury suffered in an innocuous tackle against the Northern Eagles revealed a spinal condition that required corrective surgery. Tallis’ season was over, but he returned strongly in ’02 with no ill effects. ARL Team of the Century halfback Andrew Johns was forced into early retirement in 2007 when he was revealed to have a bulging disc in his neck, while Brent Tate has proved it is possible to bounce back from a career-threatening neck injury and flourish for many years.
There are more pertinent player safety issues to address, and the immediate prospects facing young Alex McKinnon are 10 times more terrifying than Ian Roberts’ overhyped interview.
Former Melbourne centre Maurice Blair, now with the Gold Coast, experienced how fine the line can be when it comes to neck injuries – no matter how bad an incident looks. Blair was dumped on his head in a late-season encounter with Canberra last year in one of the most sickening incidents in recent memory. Despite being taken off in a neck brace on a medi-cab, Blair escaped serious damage and was back on the paddock within a fortnight.
It is far too early to speculate on the likelihood of McKinnon, a Country Origin debutant in 2013, playing again this season – or ever again. The game is littered with players forced to give the game away due to serious injuries, with Broncos winger Jharal Yow Yeh (leg) and Tigers backrower Simon Dwyer (shoulder) recent heartbreaking examples of young guns retiring early in their burgeoning careers.
I’d like to join everyone else in the wider rugby league public in wishing Alex McKinnon the very best for a full and speedy recuperation, and hope to see the tyro making his trademark charges in the blue, red and white jumper in the near future.