Posted on August 25, 2012

In the cavalcade of great grand finals to remember, the 1969 Balmain v Souths encounter invariably gets a mention. It’s the story of the upstart Tigers outfit that managed to bring down the mighty Rabbitohs 11 points to 2, and thwart what ultimately would have been five premierships in a row (1967-71) for the Redfern men.

Written by Sean Fagan
[originally published in The Sun-Herald]

Anyone with red and green blood coursing through their veins will of course point out that Balmain, in an effort to stop the Souths machine from getting up any momentum and into their stride, “laid down to win that game”.

“It will be remembered as the Stop-Start Grand Final,” began one contemporary report of the contest. “The day that referee Keith Page whistled up a storm, calling ambulancemen onto the ground time and time again, to treat the injuries(?) of Balmain players. Dubious tactics perhaps by the Tigers, but highly successful.”

Tiger after Tiger found it impossible to rise from a tackle to play the ball. Mimicking the style of a knocked-down prize-fighter, heroically but futilely searching within to find the energy to get up off the canvas, time after time Balmain players flopped to the SCG turf. It was a winning tactic, but there was nothing heroic about it.

Under the rules of that time, the referee had no choice but to suspend the game while the collar and tie-wearing ‘zambuk’ (St John ambulanceman) came onto the field and treated the ‘injured’ Tiger.

Rugby league had no rule that catered for a situation where a player feigned injury. In a sport where wearing shin-pads was once ridiculed as a sign of effeminacy, it was ludicrous to suggest a tackled man would willingly not regain his feet to play the ball.

The NSWRL changed the rules so that the delay was eliminated and any incentive to lay down removed. From 1970 onwards the ball was taken from the injured player and given to one of his team mates to immediately play the ball.

In the best of rugby league traditions, we left the dead and injured where they fell, and got on with the game. We were assured “the methods that Balmain appeared to use to help them home in 1969 won’t be seen again.”

Aside from occasional instances, that has largely held true …until NRL 2010 season…

For some reason we no longer take the ball from an injured player and immediately get on with the game. We wait, not just for the trainer to attend, but to watch the video replay to see if anything untoward happened in the tackle (or even in an earlier tackle of a different player).

The 2010 play-offs have been blighted by players staying down following what appeared in the run of play to be innocuous tackles – the typical sort of incidental accidents that everyone acknowledges come with carrying the ball in a hard physical collision football code. If they happen they are just the fortune of war, just the playing of the game. Past generations of players simply shook their head and got on with it.

Of course, we all know why players today are staying down – the reward for almost any accidental contact with the head, or a momentarily late tackle that invariably will look worse in slow motion, is practically now a certain penalty for your team –and in 2010 most tries come in the set after a penalty.

Yet, to stay down feigning injury is (in a football sense) an unmanly act, striking against the very spirit in which the game has until now always been played.

Compounded by the ridiculously inane ball-stripping rule, “dominant/surrender” shouts and the ensuing battle for advantage at the ruck, rugby league is descending into a game of mobile wrestling bouts where trickery and slyness, bluff and appeals, consumes the bulk of the 80 minutes.

All of this might be gamesmanship, but it isn’t sportsmanship.

In rugby league tradition the ultimate individual award on grand final day has never gone to the “Best on Ground”, but to the “Man of the Match”.

Let’s hope that in the 2010 grand final we see 34 men playing the hard and fast game of rugby league, and not something else.

[originally published in The Sun-Herald]

© Copyright – Sean Fagan

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