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Nic Naitanui - Collateral Damage in the AFL's War on Concussion?

The AFL’s on-again off-again war on concussion appears to be on-again, with Nic Naitanui being handed a one-week suspension for what is, ostensibly a hard tackle.

Over the past couple of years, the AFL has put on their boots, packed their gear and gone to war on sling tackles, with suspensions to players such as Patrick Dangerfield for acts that have been pure football acts. Yes, there was a sling involved, and yes, they have been harsh on the player executing the tackle.

The suspension of Nic Naitanui takes this to a whole different level. There was no slinging involved in Naiatnui’s action. As a matter of fact, many have suggested he should’ve turned his body as he crashed into Port Adelaide’s Karl Amon. The strange thing about this suggestion is that turning his body and completing the tackle could very well have caused the tackle to end up in a sling. Naitanui was damned if he did, and damned if he didn’t with this tackle.

So, what were the options available to him in the seconds before he made contact?

Option 1 – Tackle.

This is the most logical option, and it is exactly what the AFL has been preaching for years now. Tackle, not bump.

At the speed he was running Nic Naitanui had no option other than to bury Karl Amon to prevent him from disposing of the ball. Could he have turned him at that velocity? I am not sure that this was possible at all. Amon was in retreat and once contact was made, Naitanui had very little control of where their bodies went aside from continuing with his momentum. He is a powerful athlete – 110 kilograms of tackling fury, and he was running in a straight line at Amon. Both players had nowhere to go. He executed the tackle as hard and as fairly as possible but fell into Amon’s back as they landed. The result was a free kick to Amon, and I don’t think anyone will argue that it could be anything but. However, the other result was a concussion, and that sets off alarm bells at AFL House.

Option 2 – Bump

Now it gets messy. Nick Naitanui could have easily elected to bump Karl Amon. He would’ve knocked him into the middle of next week (now this week) if he did.

He could have used all that weight and all that force to slam his body into Amon, tucking in his shoulder and using his body weight to impact him. Two weeks ago, we saw Ryan Burton exonerated for bumping Shaun Higgins – an action that saw Higgins stretchered off and admitted to hospital. We were told that the head clash in the bump was accidental. I’m sure it was. How sure can we be that Naitanui deliberately buried Amon’s head into the turf? We can’t.

The waters are now very murky around the issue of bumping, but I am quite confident in saying that had NicNat opted to hip and shoulder Karl Amon, he would be spending more than a week on the sidelines. How much damage do you think a bump from Naitanui would have inflicted on Amon?

It could have been carnage. Accidental, legal carnage.

Option 3 – Don’t tackle or bump.

And here is where we are in the current AFL landscape. A player has the ball, and you’re running right at him. Your objective is to dispossess or cause a stoppage. The best way to do this is to tackle. How then, is NOT tackling an option? Because you have a duty of care not to hurt him?

The option not to tackle is against every instinct a footballer possesses The option to allow your opponent to get the ball and clear it is not an act any footballer even conntemplates. I’ve heard people talk over the last 24 hours about Naitanui’s duty of care to protect Amon. What about his duty of care to his football club, his supporters and the game itself?

Tackling is a big part of the game. Not tackling is something associated with Gaelic Football. How much do you enjoy the international rules series compared to our game? Have you ever watched a game of Gaelic footy where they don’t tackle? That’s where we’re headed.

From a young age, we are taught to tackle to dispossess. We are taught that we are to attack the body of the player carrying the ball to win the ball for our team. For people to suggest that allowing Amon space, and that Naitanui could’ve corralled him is completely against the spirit of the game. You must dismiss this as an argument from Soccer Mums and their enablers.

So, for mine, the conclusion is that the best option was to tackle, as Naitanui has been doing with aggression all year. Now we segue into whether it is his style that is the problem.

His tackle against Geelong’s Brandan Parfitt earlier in the year is very similar. Like a panther pouncing on his prey, Naitanui completely devastates Parfitt. It is a crunching tackle, with immense force. It is the perfect tackle as he doesn’t land in Parfitt’s back, but the intent remains that same as the Amon tackle. The intent to dispossess and win possession for his team. Parfitt’s head hits the ground as well. There is no slinging involved – just pure tackling force. It is a great tackle, and was lauded as such. There were no penalties for it, and rightly so.

Michael Christian stated that pinning the arms and driving a player into the ground is not on. That’s understandable. The other issue at play here is that Naitanui did NOT pin Amon’s arms. He pinned one, allowing Amon the option of disposing of the ball in order to protect himself as he went to ground. His other option was to hold onto the. Amon opted for the latter. Yes, it was a split-second decision, but Naitanui should not be held accountable for Amon’s decision not to drop the ball. Amon had the option to get a hand up to brace his fall – he didn’t take it.

Releasing the ball to protect himself may have been an exercise in futility, as the whole tackle and impact on the ground was over in a second, but is his lack of time to display duty of care around his own wellbeing any different to the timeframe Naitanui had to execute the tackle differently?

No, it’s not. Naitanui elected to tackle. It was the right decision. Amon elected to hold onto the ball and not protect himself as he was taken to ground. It was the wrong decision,

Finally, we have had media members come out and espousing their opinions on the issue, as is their want. Kane Cornes has supported the suspension, citing an incident where Byron Pickett buried him in a tackle. That’s fair enough, as it is first-hand experience. He remembers the feeling of helplessness as he was driven into the ground. It’s not a position I envy at all.  The difference here is that Cornes had both arms pinned. Amon had one free.

Former Match Review Panel Chairman, Peter Schwab believes that there should be no case to answer for Naitanui. On SEN on Tuesday morning, Schwab defended NicNat. “He is a powerful man. It’s not his fault he’s so quick. I don’t think you can categorically say he acted recklessly in what he did because it happened so quickly.”

The comment that concerns me most is from Danny Frawley on Twitter, where he applauds the decision due to the way tackles are being executed in local women’s leagues. How times have changed – he is the same guy that gets excited when a defender leaps into the back of a forward to make a spoil, making him “earn it” in the process.

Of course, 110 kilogram athletes with amazing agility running around local comps burying smaller opponents is very common, so I completely understand why he’s concerned.

There is a clear distinction between a local women’s and the professional men’s league. Naitanui tackling Karl Amon aggressively has little impact on how Glenda tackles Jane in Warburton. They can’t execute the sheer force and power Naitanui does.

The AFL has put its helmet back on and they’re re-entering the trenches. The war against concussion has shifted focus from bumping to tackling. Nic Naitanui could be the first casualty of 2018.

I loved the way Naitanui attacked Parfitt. I loved the way he attacked Amon, and I love the way Nic Naiatnui is going about his football in 2018.

I hope he gets off.


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