After the stunning State of Origin decider in which the Blues’ James Tedesco lunged across the line for a last-minute try and instant elevation to the pantheon of sporting gods, it comes as sobering news this morning to learn of the fate of league legend Steve Folkes.
The Canterbury great, who ran out onto the field 245 times as a player and represented his state and country before a distinguished career as a coach, died aged 59 last year with a degenerative brain disease.
The four-time grand final winner was one of the two NRL players who, after their deaths, were diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) – a disease likely caused by repeated head traumas.
When the findings were revealed last month, it sent shockwaves through the sport and renewed focus on the NRL’s concussion policy and approach to head injuries.
eading what Folkes’ family endured as his health declined will only reinforce the sense of loss; he was by no means an old man, and had passion and talent to burn.
Awful though Folkes’ death is, he and one other player represent the only two confirmed cases of CTE in Australian rugby league players. Whether they are outliers or represent the canary in the coalmine for a much larger problem is impossible to know without further research.
Whatever action the sport takes must be based on evidence, which for now is troubling but limited. Still, with head injuries it would be wise for the NRL to err on the side of caution and ensure its policies are world-class.
It is to the NRL’s credit that several advances have been made in the past decade. Clubs no longer lose their interchange options when a player is hurt, and doctors play a much more prominent role in deciding whether a player is fit to continue.
The NRL was, briefly, publicising the clubs that fell foul of the concussion guidelines and it is worth contemplating taking this approach again.
There is the possibility this could lead to a legal minefield, but more transparency can only be a good thing. It is also worth drawing a distinction with the experience in the US, where the NFL has paid hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation and actively covered up scientific evidence. That is not the case here.
Crucially, too, the culture of rugby league is changing. When Folkes was making his name as a Bulldogs legend in the 1970s and ’80s, playing hurt was a matter of pride and was considered a badge of honour.
League players are still hard men, and proud, but it is encouraging this is changing and medical advice is holding greater sway.