A certain level of aggression is essential to the game of rugby league, particularly in defence and particularly in the middle of the field, where the big boys collide.
Rugby league is, in many ways, a combat contact team sport. The collision and tackle aspect of the game is a form of wrestling and, let’s face it, only a few scary people are able to compete in any form of combat without first setting an aggressive mindset.
There’s nothing wrong with a rugby league tackler facing up to his opponent with the desire to hurt him and there’s equally nothing wrong with a trainer asking that of his players…just as long as it remains within the rules of the game.
Aggression and aggressive physicality have both a psychological and physical impact: knock him down hard and he’ll think twice about running at you again; drive your shoulder into his upper body and the ball might pop out; give him a dead leg and he might need to be replaced by a lesser opponent.
Take the noble art of boxing, for example. If you were a boxer or boxing trainer and you knew your next opponent had a tendency to cut above the eye, you would aim to hit him there repeatedly. You wouldn’t take a knife and cut him above the eye, but you would try to exploit a known weakness while playing within the rules and spirit of the sport.
In rugby league terms, that means that it’s fine to aim your attack towards a perceived weaker or fatigued player in the defensive line, or kick a high ball to the winger who’s just taken a hit and is still groggy, or even aim your shoulder at the knee of the guy whose knee is strapped. But it wouldn’t be acceptable, for instance, to purposely twist someone’s strapped knee after the completion of a tackle with the aim of tearing ligaments or destroying joints. It would be fine to aim your shoulder at a thigh with the aim of inflicting damage and giving the ball-carrier a ‘dead leg’, but not to aim to catch his leg under your body and snap his leg. You can aim to slow him down, scare him or even send him to the bench injured, but not send him to the emergency room or end his career.
This may seem like common sense, but in Serbia there appears to be some confusion about acceptable aggression and subsequent actions on the pitch. I hope the few examples above can act as a guide to knowing what is acceptable and what is clearly intolerable as we go forward in the spirit of our great game.