Mark “Spud” Carroll was Bob Fulton’s kind of guy: big, fast, aggressive, Carroll launched himself at the opposition line, in defence or attack, without apparent care for his own or his opponents’ welfare. Manly fans loved the mad bastard as Knights’ fans loved Paul “The Chief” Harragon, Carroll’s arch-rival in the crazy hard-charger stakes.
They were “enforcers”, their work often borderline legal. And thus Spud and Chief – and Ian Roberts, Gorden Tallis, Mark Geyer, each team had one – were important people, defenders of the middle, to attackers of soft underbellies; men well-equipped to brutalise and tenderise. To make the other mob afraid.
Fans loved them for it as Roosters fans today love Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, as Storm fans love Nelson Asafa-Solomona. People love The Big Guy, The Enforcer. Their one, anyway. Psychologists could tell you why in learned terms. Caveman thing, maybe. Veneration of the Great Protector; the one in the tribe their enemies will fear. Say what you will about self-interest, but it’s always having a crack.
As it was in the cave, so it is in rugby league. We venerate the big man, the hitman: David Gillespie was “Cement”. Trevor Gillmeister was “The Axe”. Sam Burgess was “Slammin'” in some quarters but didn’t have a nickname, not really. Didn’t need one. Souths’ opponents just knew he was coming, at speed, to ruin you. Sammy.
Today’s version of Cement and Axe is Roosters lock Victor Radley. And he does have a nickname, and it’s a beauty – “Victor the Inflictor” – for a beauty of a footy player. Our Vic is a one-man jackhammer of jolting shoulder action; a “hit-man” more than “enforcer” but no less someone to watch out for, rushing out of the line, in the back of a man’s mind: Eek! Where’s the Inflictor?
Yet as Radley found when he was sin-binned twice and reported four times against Brisbane Broncos on Saturday night, his all-action tackling style, while spectacular, is no longer on, at least the way he’s been doing it.
“The enforcer is dead” said Burgess in The Sun-Herald, and it may be true, certainly in terms of a player like Burgess who would routinely fling himself at runners and rock their brains with his shoulder and other bits. Because you can’t do that anymore. And you should never, really, have been able to.
But rugby league has hard-to-shift, accepted mores. And until Peter V’landys’ apparently iron-clad edict emailed to clubs in recent weeks, they were still in place, part of the culture, if you will.
It was – and still is, apparently, in some quarters – accepted that if a tackle “slips up” or a man’s forearm comes off the ball and into the chin it isn’t the defender’s fault and thus should not be a penalty. If the runner slips or dips low – or is low already – it can’t be the big guy’s fault, right? What’s he going to do? He’s a big guy. He’s an enforcer. There are different rules, there are nods and winks.
No more. Today any contact with the head, unintentional, careless or otherwise, is a penalty. And depending on the severity, in the referee’s and bunker’s opinion, a report, sin bin and/or send off.
“I love the way Victor Radley plays,” said Corey Parker on the telly after Radley jolted a man’s head for the second or third time, you could lose count, such was the red mist.
One media type opined that the 15 reports in the Roosters-Broncos was “farcical”. Another wrote on the Twitter: “Radley tackles too hard for rugby league.”
No – he tackles too high. And too high today is any tackle that contacts the attacker’s head. Any tackle.
Radley’s been playing this way for years. It’s what got him into the team, got him the cool “Inflictor” nickname. Experts will tell you he can’t adapt and change, at least not quickly. His body language Saturday night seemed to plead: What am I going to do? It’s how I play! I’m the Inflictor!
But if Radley wants to continue playing he must change, according to no less an authority than Slammin’ Sam Burgess.
“The hit-man style of player is going to have hesitation as part of his make-up now,” Burgess told Danny Weidler. “And you can’t have that. You need to be committed to the target and the shot you are going to put on. Now the room for error is so small and the result is letting your team down and then spending five weeks on the sideline.
“Players will adapt. They have [for] other rules and now they face this challenge.”
Radley will now have a few weeks on the sideline to hone his technique. Or our man the Inflictor will be off the park for good – a liability, as other hit-men and enforcers will be unless they lower their tackling target.
What can it all possibly mean? Big picture you can see what the NRL’s Great Benign Dictators are trying to do: rub out high shots, think of the children, cover the game’s bum against litigation.
Others are thinking shorter term.
“There’s a danger we’ll lose supporters”, said one journo on the telly. And if that’s true it’ll be supporters who like rugby league because of the illegal violence. People watch that cage-fighting for the same reason: some people like it. Dig it. Get off on it.
Rugby league, in recent weeks, as it does and has always done, long live and bless it, has peered into its own soul and isn’t sure what it’s found. Isn’t sure of its identity.
And some of its supporters will have to work out if they still like rugby league if it no longer tolerates against-the-rules violence.
Vic Radley as much as anyone.