Tackle it head on: Finucane and Lewis can teach the NRL why concussion rules have to change immediately


Dale Finucane will go down as one of the most honest, hard-working and inspirational players of his time.

He’s what we want out of our footy players: on the field, unflinchingly tough, but off it, as polite and wholesome as they come.

A country boy from Bega who got to the top on the back of talent, yes, but an ability to apply that talent to the absolute maximum.

He was schooled in the Canterbury side of the early 2010s: his first coach was Des Hasler and his teammates in that Grand Final year of 2012 included James Graham, Michael Ennis, Aiden Tolman, Marty Taupau and Sam Kasiano. Tough? You bet.

When he departed for the Storm after three years and two Grand Final defeats, he was already the sort of player that could have been grown in a lab to play for Craig Bellamy. Team-first, set and forget, always happy to let someone else shine.

It’s no surprise that Craig Fitzgibbon went out of his way to make Finucane his first signing at the Sharks. Between him and Cam McInnes, he couldn’t have wished for two more emblematic arrivals in terms of setting the expectations and standards.

Now, having found his head in the wrong place one too many times, he’s called it a day.

He’s certainly not the first to retire due to repeated concussions and he definitely will not be the last, but what he might be is an enduring metaphor for the direction of travel.

It is perhaps ironic that the most memorable part of Finucane’s late career will be his 2022 head clash with Stephen Crichton, leaving the then-Panthers’ centres ear half hanging off.

The lock forward was banned for the incident, the first in the NRL era to cop a suspension for an accidental head clash.

“I was quite surprised with the outcome given it was an accidental offence,” he said at the time.

“Given that our game hasn’t seen anything sanctioned before for accidental head contact, so I was optimistic coming in.

“I was disappointed with the outcome given it was an accidental offence. While I empathise with Stephen…it’s going to set a precedent moving forward.”

The funny thing, really, is that it absolutely hasn’t set a precedent – at least not in Australia.

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

The next major head-on-head suspension discussion was also at Penrith, with Reece Walsh knocked into the middle of next week by Taylan May, but no suspension, or even penalty, was forthcoming.

That weekend was Finucane’s last match – a loss away at the Wests Tigers in which he left with for HIA – and the week before, his final home game, he had been on the bench as Poasa Fa’amausili was concussed by a head clash with McInnes as he returned the kick off for the very first tackle of the game.

In the intervening 18 months between Finucane’s collision with Crichton and his retirement, a vast amount of data has been gathered on the impact of head-on-head, yet the NRL has not actually moved an inch on its rule interpretations.

We don’t see head-on-head punished at all, despite both rugby union and the Super League taking active steps to counteract what is, by a distance, the most common reason in either code for concussions.

That’s worth underlining: much as there is bluster on concussions from tackles around the hips, the data is abundantly clear that two heads occupying the same space is the issue.

On the same day that Finucane retired, we saw the worst of what can happen when these things go unheeded, with Wally Lewis speaking openly about his issues with concussion aftereffects and appealing to the Australian government to fund research into chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the disease linked to repeated blows to the head.

Wally Lewis. (Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images)

“I am here today because I am living with probably CTE,” he told the National Press Club, referring to the inability to diagnose the disease in a living person.

“I have a platform, and I intend to use it at every opportunity to bring about change for all Australians, just like me, who are impacted by CTE, and to do whatever I can to protect the brains of Australian children from CTE.

“I don’t want anyone to have to live with the fear and anxiety that I live with every day of my lifetime.

“And be worried about what I’ve forgotten, not even knowing what it is that I’ve forgotten.

“The fear of what my future will look like, and living with the constant fear and anxiety that I’m certainly just about to let people down.

“The people who, all my life, have been able to rely on me and look to me for my strength and leadership.”

There was a messaging in there that the NRL slowly has adopted.

“Players need to understand that just because you can’t always see it, like a broken arm, a brain injury needs to be taken seriously,” said Lewis.

“It’s not a badge of honour to go back out on the field with a head injury – it’s careless.”

Concussion rules have, largely, been reactive: changes made because it was unsustainable not to, either from an insurance perspective, a PR perspective or a societal perspective.

You can’t unknow what you know, and all we know about concussions only leads one way.

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

The NRL is shamed every week that it doesn’t punish head-on-head, the most common cause of concussions, especially when other codes and other versions of the same code do so.

Super League, for example, has always been more proactive in setting standards in refereeing.

During the 2010s, when Finucane played the bulk of his football, one player – Hull FC enforcer Liam Watts – was sent off more times in a year than the NRL sent off in five years.

Is he a rougher, tougher player than an NRL player? No. Is he dirtier than the entire NRL combined for five straight years? No.

But he did play under a different framework, which actively sought to combat foul play in the here and now.

Rugby union’s rules are a total mess, but a decent amount of that is an attempt to change behaviours that drastically need to change.

Dale Finucane played 251 games of first grade, plus nine rep matches for Country and NSW, in which time he suffered what he described as ‘double digits’ concussions.

If we imagine it’s ten, it’s one a season for 12 seasons, and that’s the ones that we know about, that were reported and acted upon, which wasn’t required by the NRL until 2014 (two years into his career) and only involved a mandatory standdown as of 2023.

He made 14, 25, 27, 23, 27, 26, 18 and 26 appearances prior to the Covid-induced shutdown, but never topped 17 since.

The rate of concussions in professional rugby league over six years in the UK was around 15 per 1,000 hours of play time, a number that increased over time and was higher in better competitions.

Back of a fag packet maths across the years 2012-2019 would suggest that Finucane played around 8,000 minutes of NRL footy in that time period, so statistically could be expected to have suffered 9.1 concussions.

Were that to have happened under our current rules, he would not have made as many appearances as he would have been stood down under protocols.

We now know that not having those protocols in place was unsafe. It is a good thing that the rules changed.

We also now know that head-on-head contact causes the bulk of concussions, so the interpretation of the rules – remember, head high contact has always been a penalty – needs to change to adapt to what he have learned.

The hope would be that the next Dale Finucane makes it to 300 games rather than pulling up short on 251.

The hope has to be that, in 20 years’ time, we’re not watching another superstar tell us how they can’t remember things anymore.

You can’t unknow what you know. You have to change.

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