Grant Chapman: Flurry of yellow, red cards much-needed antidote to NRL's concussion conundrum

OPINION: All around the world, football codes - even soccer - are grappling with the growing plague on their respective games.

Head injuries.

Last weekend’s NRL 'Magic Round' quickly turned into a 'Tragic Round', as match officials handed out three red and 14 yellow cards, and put 24 tacklers on report for high contact around the head.

Some of those hits were, frankly, sickening to watch and if that violence is allowed to continue unchecked, careers will continue to end prematurely and former players will continue to suffer the consequences later in life.

This is not a new phenomenon. American football may have been the first code to recognise the risk, but others have been quick to fall in line.

Even soccer, where tackling is largely carried out below the knees, has begun pondering the cumulative effects of heading the ball over the course of an entire career.

Late last year, former rugby players filed a class action lawsuit against World Rugby, England's Rugby Football Union and the Wales Rugby Union for failing to protect them from concussion.

Presumably, those players knew the risks when they chose rugby as their pastime - and that physicality was probably part of the attraction - so to retrospectively claim compensation for their own bad choices now seems a little far-fetched.

Still, it's only a matter of time before one of these cases succeeds and the litigious floodgates pour open.

That gladiatorial element has always been a part of rugby league, where the first hit-up of a State of Origin series is often the most anticipated single moment of any NRL season.  

Taking the collision and not remembering the rest of a game has long been a badge of honour among these hard men, but administrators are finally - FINALLY - getting serious about the ongoing physical and financial risk to their game.

The NRL dropped the ball three years ago, when it allowed Melbourne Storm fullback Billy Slater to take the field for the Grand Final, despite a blatant shoulder charge during the dying moments of the previous week's semi-final.

Penrith players respond to Herman Ese'ese's high shot on Brian To'o
Penrith players respond to Herman Ese'ese's high shot on Brian To'o. Photo credit: Getty

By allowing Slater to play the final game of his illustrious career, the powers-that-be showed exceptions could always be made and left the door ajar for league's bush lawyers to argue the shades of grey on every single referee's call, whether it be a penalty, booking, card or resulting suspension.

As the game took a stand at Brisbane over the weekend, its efforts were poorly represented by TV commentators more focused on generating 'controversy corner' fodder or ex-players using their positions in the media to continue grudges against authority.

They complain that the physicality they knew and loved is being diluted out of the game, failing to recognise that the game they fondly remember may no longer be one that parents will guide their kids towards, when there are so many safer options available.      

Their quibbles over the merits of various tackles simply undermine the edict being delivered by NRL bosses on one of the season's biggest stages - there can be NO margin of error when it comes to head contact.

Former Warriors forward Lachlan Burr was probably the unluckiest of the offenders, as he became at least the second victim of Roosters star James Tedesco falling into a tackle this season. Moving forward, opponents will need to aim even lower on the Sydney fullback.

The dumbest indiscretion was Kiwi forward Herman Ese'ese's near decapitation of Penrith flyer Brian To'o in the weekend's final game. Did he learn nothing over the preceding three days?

But calls for a five-minute sin bin to ease the impact of yellow cards completely miss the point. If a team has to lose games for players and coaches to get the message, so be it - they'll learn quickly enough or they'll struggle. 

Maybe this year's NRL champions will be the team that adjust quickest to the new regime and lower their tackle targets. 

Bet you they're already near the top of the table, because they're already smarter than the others and more disciplined.

Grant Chapman is Newshub digital sports leader