Cronulla coach John Morris has called on the NRL to introduce a concussion substitute after three of his players failed their head injury assessments and a fourth suffered a game-ending knee injury.
But the NRL’s rule changes to promote faster play, which has in turn caused greater fatigue, have also come under fire.
The Sharks were throttled to just 13 fit players before half-time in a brutal 28-4 loss to Parramatta at Bankwest Stadium on Saturday night.
With stars Shaun Johnson and Jesse Ramien already sidelined, the news that Sione Katoa will miss time with an MCL injury was far from what Cronulla needed.
But Morris is already scratching his head as to what his team might look like against North Queensland next week.
Wade Graham, Briton Nikora and Will Kennedy will all need to move through the return-to-play concussion protocols this week without symptoms to be cleared to play the Cowboys.
The unfortunate scenes prompted renewed talk of an 18th man being allowed on the field to offset legitimate concussions.
“I would’ve liked another player tonight,” Morris said.
“If we’re going to be really strict there and rule guys out with head knocks, we also probably need to be a little bit lenient around the plan if you lose three or four like we did tonight.”
Canberra also spent 68 minutes with just 14 fit players in their loss to the Warriors on Saturday, with Joseph Tapine (ankle) sidelined alongside concussed pair Sebastian Kris and Ryan James.
Raiders coach Ricky Stuart did not address the potential for rule changes, though he praised his players in a post-match press conference that lasted just 90 seconds because of his anger at the referees.
“In all my years of coaching – 18, 19, 20 years – I’ve never been involved in a greater team performance,” he said.
“The way they, whatever minute it was when we only had one player left on the interchange bench, I’ve never seen a group of individuals, which was down to 14, play so well but yet play to such adversity and play for each other.”
Others around the NRL, including retired hooker Cam King, suggested ARL Commission chairman Peter V’Landys and the NRL had to start reconsidering off-season rule changes.
“I hope all these rule changes which are for entertainment purposes are worth it because this is carnage and it’s round 3,” he wrote, with the hashtag ‘playerwelfare’.
“The workload that is being asked of these players every single week and the speed of the game is going to take its toll.”
Sharing a current player’s perspective, South Sydney Rabbitohs veteran Benji Marshall agreed fatigue does contribute to injuries – but he believes the staggering toll in round three is just “unlucky”.
“It is just fatigue. When you are fatigued your brain still thinks it can do the same things as when you are not tired,” he said on Fox Sports.
“When you throw your hand out to make a tackle and you do your pec or a shoulder or a hamstring. So fatigue is going to be a big factor in that.
“But in terms of the injuries you can’t just say that something is making it happen this round. To me it is just an unlucky round.”
Premiership-winning hooker Michael Ennis, however, said one wild weekend should be enough to raise alarm bells at the NRL.
“I think it is going to take a weekend like we have had to raise the concerns of what we saw in that 40 minutes,” Ennis said.
“We don’t just have a weekend to get through. John Morris has a whole season to get through. They have to play the Cowboys next week.
“The Raiders are decimated and have to play next week. I know we have squads, but we have implemented all these rules and we need to have a look at it and see if it is because of all these rule changes.
“Players have had to play a full 40 minutes and put their bodies through things they haven’t had to do before. It could be dangerous for the players.”