Rugby League Players' Association president Clint Newton has slammed the lack of action over player safety at the Rugby League World Cup 2013 and urged powerbrokers to act to ensure the threat of serious injuries does not affect future tournaments overseas.
With Sharks and Kangaroos back-rower Luke Lewis suffering a dislocated shoulder early in the Cup schedule when sliding into advertising hoardings behind the dead-ball line, Australian five-eighth Johnathan Thurston raised the issue at a press conference before the final.
But despite assurances player safety would be addressed for the final, Australian winger Brett Morris and Kiwi winger Manu Vatuvei both came dangerously close to serious injury when slamming into advertising hoardings just metres behind the dead-ball line.
Speaking to NRL.com on the day the International Rugby League Federation (IRLF) announced a $5.4 million World Cup profit, Newton said he expected both the NRL and the RLPA – which he said had no say over conditions at the recent tournament – to have a bigger say over playing conditions at future tournaments as a result of those incidents.
"When people did the walk-through of the ground, which I think people do all the time, there was a clear and obvious risk of playing on such a field, so my question is – were the players' safety and welfare at the forefront of people's minds when they agreed, the day before the game or whenever they did the walk-through... was that something that was seriously considered?" Newton asked.
"And if it was, why weren't some things put in place to protect the players?"
Newton is satisfied the NRL has the players' best interests at heart and is confident things will be better managed in the future. "We'll wait to get the response from the governing body [the IRLF]... was there a walk-through and was this held as a high-regard sort of thing, was it up there on the list of importance?"
Newton said the NRL's football operations were "far superior" to the UK Super League.
"I made the point quite clear while I was over there [playing for the USA Tomahawks in the World Cup] that there were certain welfare issues that had been neglected and this is just another one that was glaringly obvious."
"Why weren't some things put in place to protect the players?"
Newton said the superior athleticism of the NRL's elite players exacerbated the issue, but added he had also seen numerous dangerous incidents during his time playing for Hull.
"The pace of the game has picked up a lot in internationals... guys will be throwing their bodies around. Right the way through the World Cup, a number of fields were too short or some of the sidelines were obviously extremely close to the fence. I know at Bristol there were some rocks along the side of the fence when we [the Tomahawks] played there."
Newton said he had raised concerns over player safety with RPLA chief executive David Garnsey and NRL chief operating officer Jim Doyle prior to the final.
"It's certainly something they're going to put in place for the next World Cup to make sure things like that don't happen. Obviously the NRL had no real control over that – it's just the way the IRLF sanctioned the grounds to play at."
Newton said there needed to be either gymnastics-type pads or some other measures to ensure players were looked after.
The final was played at the historic Old Trafford ground at Manchester, and despite the tradition the venue Newton said it was worth considering changing either the playing dimensions or the venue.
"I want players to play and experience the thrill of playing at such a historic field, there would be nothing better, but if they do play at such fields safety precautions should be taken to make sure the players are not facing such high-risk situations," he said. "The safety and protection of the game's players – and in this instance the game's elite – need to be at the forefront of people's minds."
Australian coach Tim Sheens was quoted in Fairfax Media saying the players "wouldn't swap that feeling, that crowd, for anything" while New Zealand coach Stephen Kearney was quoted as saying "there's obviously a bit of danger with sliding off the back there but I'm sure if you asked the players, they'd much rather play out there".
But Newton told NRL.com: "I'd have to say if a player was seriously injured and was put out for the rest of the season – if Manu Vatuvei or Brett Morris slide in head-first there's a potential broken neck there. Would that have been worth it? And that's not over-dramatising the situation, it could quite possibly have happened. So would it have been worth it then?"
It also opened a whole 'Pandora's Box' of issues, including potential compensation to the clubs if marquee players were to be ruled out for the season, he said.
"I'm confident that with the dialogue and the communication the RLPA have with Jim Doyle and Todd Greenberg, I think we can all work together to come up with a safer game.
"I was aware of it prior to the [final] and told people my concerns but as I said there was apparently padding to be put down – but it was hardly supportive or conducive to playing rugby league."
Newton said it was a "harsh lesson to learn" that player welfare was neglected in the tournament – "and that's quite sad because they're the players that are out there putting their bodies on the line for their country."