What happened to the NRL’s sin bin, HIAs, mandatory stand-downs and independent doctors?


As I get older, my memory starts to play tricks on me. I begin to question whether some things may or may not have happened. Did I actually wear the number 4 jersey for the Dragons in the early 70s, or just imagine it? Was 47.53 my career batting average or was it my bowling average?

Did rugby league once have a very strong stance on high contact supported by innovative head injury protocols, or were the rules changed in early September this year as some sort of “bring back the biff” initiative?

Fortunately, my friends and the record books have been able to put me straight about my limited sporting achievements, but the high contact/HIA protocol question continues to be a puzzle to my old concussion impacted brain.

Early in the 2023 season it seemed that players were being constantly reported and sin binned for making high contact on an opponent (deservedly so in the great majority of cases) while the independent doctor was busy sending one or two players to the sideline game for a head injury assessment in nearly every if they showed the slightest signs of concussion.

Queensland’s Selwyn Cobbo is attended to by trainers. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

A very conservative approach, but all done both in the interests of player safety and the mitigation of legal claims against the NRL, and presumably done with the full support of the Rugby League Players Association who exist to look after players’ interests.

So many players were leaving the field in some games, either for their discretions or for head injury assessment, that there was an growing cry that the game was being ruined somewhat as a spectacle, and perhaps the size of the bench should be increased so that teams with concussed players weren’t being unnecessarily disadvantaged.

To protect players further, those adjudged to have received the worst concussions (category 1) were subject to a mandatory 11 day stand down, which essentially meant that they missed the next game. This was a great innovation for the health of individual players and even though clubs clearly hated it, the majority of league fans saw it as being a big step in the right direction in regard to player safety and their long-term wellbeing.

Fast forward a few months to the beginning of September and the 2023 finals series and you could be forgiven for thinking that the NRL had suddenly turned the clock back a few years.

Roosters forward Brandon Smith is taken off in Auckland. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Games were characterised by multiple cases of high contact that largely went unpunished except for the occasional penalty, numerous players who were clearly suffering some level of concussion played on regardless, and it appeared that the independent doctor was away on house calls rather than identifying players who should have been taken off for assessment.

As for the mandatory stand down, where did that go?

This ‘back to the future’ approach was also well and truly in vogue during the end of year international fixtures, with big hits aplenty, frequent high contact, barely a sin bin or HIA in sight, and the independent doctor nowhere to be seen.

A cynical person might conclude that player safety was expediently ignored at the end of the year in the interests of the contest, and “giving fans what they want”. I wonder what the RLPA’s thoughts were on this?

Anyway, no doubt player safety and all the bells and whistles that go with it will be back on the agenda for the start of the 2024 season, although I suspect not for the games in Vegas. Nothing will spoil the spectacle more than players being sent off either to the sin bin or for HIA assessment, and after all, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.

After the “big hits and incredible touch downs” advertising campaign, the last thing the NRL wants is for the American viewing audience to think that NRL players are mere mortals after all, and perhaps the sight of the odd concussed player battling on regardless will add to the gladiatorial spectacle.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.