NRL head of football Graham Annesley believes a reduction in the number of players needing to leave the field for head injury assessments (HIAs) this season indicates that high tackles have virtually been eradicated from the game.
Just a week after Kangaroos coach Mal Meninga declared in an NRL.com column that "rugby league has never been safer", Annesley provided statistics at his weekly media briefing showing a drop 25 per cent reduction in HIAs this season.
In addition, just 29 per cent, or seven, of the 24 players taken from the field for HIAs in the opening three rounds have been ruled out of the game.
The drop from 32 HIAs in the first three rounds of last season comes despite the introduction of spotters in the NRL Bunker, whose advice has resulted in Sam Burgess, Tariq Sims and Mahe Fonua being taken off for assessment after initially being cleared by trainers on the field.
"I think over quite a few years now there has been a great reduction in the number of headshots," Annesley said.
Every try from Round 3
"I think our rules are very specific about contact with the head or neck and over a long period of time the judiciary code and match review process has virtually eliminated that sort of tackle from the game with any degree of intent involved.
"There will still be accidents and still be a degree of carelessness in some instances but there will also be unavoidable accidents like head clashes, which are just the nature of the body contact of our game.
"That is why we have these processes to try and make sure players don't remain on the field when they have potentially suffered a concussion."
Not every head knock is necessarily a HIA that requires an assessment off the fieldNRL head of football Graham Annesley
Annesley explained that club medical staff still make the final decision about whether a player is taken off for a HIA but the spotters in the NRL Bunker advise them to review signs of concussion that may have been missed.
Research over the course of last season indicated that staff at the ground were missing an average of one player per round who should have undergone a HIA.
Burgess was taken off after a high tackle by Roosters centre Latrell Mitchell in Round 1, while Dragons officials replaced Sims in last Thursday night's defeat of the Broncos following a head clash with Jamayne Isaako and Fonua required a HIA after contesting a kick with Bulldogs winger Jayden Okunbor on Sunday.
"Generally speaking, the people who are employed by the clubs do a very good job of picking these up but the whole purpose of having spotters in the bunker is to try and make sure nothing falls between the cracks," Annesley said.
Graham Annesley weekly football briefing – Round 3
"Not every head knock is necessarily a HIA that requires an assessment off the field.
“What we are trying to do is pick up the ones that do need to come off for assessment so we can relay that information through the Bunker to the ground and the people who work in the [Head Injury Surveillance] tent on the sideline are able to ask the doctor to come and review video.”
Injury Report - Round 3
The reduction in the number of HIAs coincides with the ball being in play for an additional 47 seconds per match this season, resulting in an average of 271 play-the-balls compared to 255 last year – an increase of almost three sets of possession per game.
With tries increasing from six per match in the first three rounds last season to an average of 7.5 tries per match, there are more bunker referrals – up from 27 to 31 – but the average time per decision has decreased from 70 seconds to 44.