For 17 minutes on Saturday night Darren Lockyer put his eyesight on the line to get his team through to the preliminary final. Anyone who’s ever watched Lockyer play knew something was seriously wrong.
The Broncos’ legendary captain, one of the toughest and most stoic men in league, couldn’t stop gingerly touching his cheek and his agony and concern were written all over his oddly altered and slowly swelling face. Of course he is such a talent that not only did he soldier on, he also thrillingly kicked the winning field-goal in extra time.
Meanwhile, the Dragons’ Brett Morris was hobbling around the field playing with an ankle injury so severe he eventually collapsed on the sideline and was taken to hospital. What was initially believed to be a fractured fibula has been diagnosed as a syndesmosis ankle ligament injury, from which it takes about six weeks to recover.
Both men were so clearly badly injured that I’m sure I wasn’t the only person watching and asking, "Why are they still on the field?" It wasn’t an idle question; I was so worried I actually shouted it at my television and my husband; neither responded.
It was the first of many questions to come. Today, as Morris acquaints himself with his moon boot and prepares to watch the finals from the sofa, and Locky feels the effects of having three titanium plates inserted in his cheekbone, footy writers and fans are thrashing out dozens of questions.
Among them: Will Lockyer play on Friday night? Should it be his decision? What are the risks? Can the Broncos win without him? Will he wear protective headgear? Will other teams take advantage of his weakness?
So, in the interests of being more responsive and more foolishly opinionated than my television and my husband, here are some answers:
Will he play? It’s more than likely, as next year’s Broncos captain Sam Thaiday said: “He’s a tough man. He’ll be playing, don’t worry about him.” Lockyer himself told a radio station the day after his operation, “If I get through the next couple of days of training I will be leaning towards playing”.
Should it be his decision? I’m with the NRL’s chief medical officer Ron Muratore on this one, so that’s a decisive no. As Muratore said in The Australian newspaper, it should be the doctor’s call: “Any player, especially someone of his status, of course he is going to play. That’s grossly unfair.”
What are the risks? Muratore listed many potential problems including nerve damage, double vision, the eye slipping back in the socket, and infection.
There’s talk of driving Lockyer the 934km to the game in Sydney because there’s some question over whether he should be flying so soon after the operation. If he’s not able to fly, how the hell is he able to play finals football?
Can the Broncos win without him? Former coach and mentor Wayne Bennett says no chance, but Sam Thaiday seems confident: “We’ve won plenty of times this year without Locky. At the moment we could put anyone on the park.” I’m with Thaiday on this one.
As Des Hasler so desperately pointed out in his ongoing quest to make his team the underdogs, the Broncos can boast four internationals and 10 State of Origin players. Of course they’re a much better chance of winning with Lockyer on the field, but anything can and does happen in finals footy.
Will he wear protective headgear? If he doesn’t, let’s assume he’s still suffering concussion. Running out to confront 13 very solid, very aggressive and exceedingly determined enemies with a bare face held together with pins would not be the action of a sane man.
Will other teams take advantage of his weakness? I’d like to say no, and maybe the respect in which he’s held will mean they won’t target his injury. Hasler even called the question “immoral … not very ethical”, but it’s happened many times before. Even on Saturday night, seeing Brett Morris lying crumpled on the ground in absolute agony didn’t stop Lockyer’s teammate Justin Hodges from diving on him.
I believe both Morris and Lockyer should have been taken off the field and examined by an impartial doctor when they were first injured. No pain is strong enough to prompt a player to abandon his teammates in a gridlocked finals game. And Locky shouldn’t decide whether he plays this week. He is a leader, he’s tough, skilled, and smart, but he’s not a doctor.
With the whole season at stake for him, for his teammates, and for his fans, he’ll play; that’s the kind of man he is. “At the end of the day the decision is mine and I have to live with it,” he said. Let’s just hope that at the end of the season that’s all he’ll have to live with.
The views in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of NRL.com.