More subs, player loans, cap changes?: How the NRL can be proactive to fix the early-year injury crisis


With just four rounds completed, the NRL’s mounting injury toll is already becoming intolerable, and this year’s premiership is in danger of becoming a case of “last man standing’ wins”.

Surely no other professional sporting competition produces the injury numbers that we see in the NRL, many of them serious and even career ending, and given the punishment players’ bodies take these days, it’s no wonder they try to maximise their earnings while they still can.

Already, last year’s grand finalists Penrith and Brisbane have both been hit hard, with key players missing in action for many weeks, and perhaps they’ll struggle to replicate their success of last season given not only their injury toll, but also the number of players they’re likely to lose to the state of origin circus in just a couple of months’ time.

Of course, they’re not the only clubs with mounting casualties, as every club has been affected to some extent, with over 40 players currently out of action, and you can bank on injuries having an enormous influence on the fortunes of many clubs as the season progresses.

The injury numbers in the game in recent years are just staggering, and while I don’t have stats to compare this year with other seasons, I recall that towards the end of the 2021 season there were over 90 players on the injury list, and that’s the equivalent of three full club squads.

Of these, some 22 players were listed in the season-ending category, while a further 13 had “indefinite” return dates. Incredible numbers really, and it won’t be a surprise if they’re replicated this year.

Just to illustrate the extent to which injuries are cutting a swathe through the game’s best talent, here’s a side drawn from this week’s list of the walking wounded showing when we can expect to see them back on the field.:

1. Reece Walsh (Broncos – 5 weeks)
2. Alex Johnston (Souths – 6 weeks)
3. Campbell Graham (Rabbitohs – 16 weeks)
4. Billy Smith (Roosters – 8 weeks)
5. Starford To’a (Tigers – 7 weeks)
6. Mitchell Moses (Eels – 8 weeks)
7. Nathan Cleary (Panthers – 3 weeks)
8. Tino Fa’asuamaleaui (Titans – next season)
9. Sandon Smith (Roosters – 6 weeks)
10. Payne Haas (Broncos – 4 weeks)
11. Jacob Preston (Bulldogs – 7 weeks)
12. Heilum Luki (Cowboys – 5 weeks)
13. Toby Rudolf (Sharks – 4 weeks)
14. Adam Doueihi (Tigers – 13 weeks)
15. Coen Hess (Cowboys – next season)
16. Tom Gilbert (Dolphins – next season)
17. Dale Finucane (Sharks – 2 weeks)

(Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

Various reasons have been offered up for what seems to be a growing injury rate, including:

• The increased speed of the game with tired players being more likely to suffer injuries.

• The increased size of the current-day players – the bigger the players, the bigger the impact. Players seem to be getting bigger every year, they have to just to survive – most of today’s fullbacks and halfbacks would dwarf their counterparts from the 1960s and 1970s.

• The change in tackling style from one-on-one to the ball-and-all gang tackle. The higher the tackle impact point, the more defenders in the tackle, and the more wrestle and twisting, the more likelihood of injury.

• Improvements in both sports science and medical technology resulting in better detection of injuries that may have gone unnoticed and untreated in days gone by.

• The advances in the HIA rules where concussed players are now more likely to both be taken off the field following injury and sit out additional games to recover. The old days of shaking off the concussion, completing the game, and turning out next week are gone.

Like it or not, the higher injury rate appears to be here to stay, so the NRL will need to look at strategies to ensure that roster depletion doesn’t lead to affected clubs becoming totally uncompetitive. Some of the available options would be:

• Follow the English trend by lowering the allowable tackle height to below the armpits.

• Increase squad sizes from the current 30 players to 35 or even 40. Obviously, there will be salary cap implications for this option.

• Make player loans between clubs easier and more flexible, with carry-forward salary cap credits and debits for the lenders and borrowers respectively.

• Allow clubs to more easily add players to their declared roster in the event of season-ending injuries. Once again, there will be salary cap considerations to consider.

Reece Walsh (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

Another critical issue with the ongoing injury toll is the effect that it has on individual matches, particularly where multiple players from the same team suffer game-ending injuries, not only leaving their team short-handed and with a depleted bench for the remainder of the match, but also necessitating players filling-in in positions they’re not capable of playing.

Surely none but the most one-eyed fan wants to watch a lopsided game decided by injuries.

What used to be a 13-on-13 tussle is now very much a 17-man affair, and with the increased speed of the game, having one or two players out of the 17 through injury can be difficult to manage, particularly where game-ending injuries occur early in the match.

The solution to the problem is relatively simple: to increase the size of the bench from 4 to 7 players, while retaining the current number of available interchanges.

This will allow coaches not only more players to call upon in the event of game-ending injuries, but also to cover a far wider range of positions across their bench players.

Clearly, as the game continues to evolve, something needs to be done to keep the injury toll in check, to provide teams with the opportunity to remain competitive each week, and wherever possible, to allow adequate players and replacements to alleviate the impact of the increasing injury toll.

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