Player safety is in the hands of those on the field
OPINION: Finally it's happened, an incident so horrendous that people are at last forced to appreciate the inherent dangers of contact sports.
Not all of them necessarily, but where high impact sports such as rugby union and league are concerned, it's probably a miracle that more incidents such as that which rendered Newcastle backrower Alex McKinnon a quadriplegic just over a week ago aren't more frequent in such a confrontational environment.
McKinnon fractured two vertebrae after landing on his neck in a three-man tackle by Melbourne trio Jesse Bromwich, Kenny Bromwich and Jordan McLean. It's almost impossible to imagine what lies ahead for McKinnon, still only 22, as he faces the rest of his life in a wheelchair, or what long-term impact, if any, it will have on the three players involved in the tackle.
McLean was the player referred to the NRL judiciary yesterday for his role in the tackle and has subsequently been suspended for seven weeks for his "substantial" involvement.
We poured scorn on Brian O'Driscoll nine years ago when All Blacks Tana Umaga and Keven Mealamu unceremoniously dumped him in that infamous Christchurch spear tackle. He was a touring Lions rugby player after all - Irish, of course - but close enough by association to be tagged a whinging Pom all the same. That O'Driscoll never played for another six months was largely lost in the wash.
Very few All Blacks supporters were even prepared to consider that either Umaga or Mealamu had acted with intent. It certainly seemed out of character and at odds with the largely unblemished careers of two of our most respected All Blacks. Not surprisingly, British rugby supporters saw the incident in an entirely different light and only Umaga and Mealamu will know for certain what their intentions were that day.
By contrast, Wales rugby captain Sam Warburton was red-carded when he speared France wing Vincent Clerc into the Eden Park turf during their 2011 World Cup semifinal. However, that tackle did not result in serious injury.
Spear tackles, lifting tackles, tip tackles - call them what you like - they're already banned. So when it comes to players attempting to control the combined effects of physical strength, adrenaline and momentum - not to mention players' varying degrees of competitiveness - then it's virtually impossible to suggest that even the best-intentioned of safety measures won't stop accidental injuries from occurring. What happened to McKinnon is an absolute tragedy and will hopefully register somewhere in the psyches of players at every level - whatever the code.
But in the heat of battle where split-second mistiming and testosterone have the potential for disaster, there are absolutely no guarantees that human error won't again raise its ugly head. Ominously, the only ones really capable of influencing player safety are the players themselves.