In a Round 1 full of shock results, devastating injuries and incredible acrobatics the most talked about topic in rugby league right now is the role of the newly adopted independent Bunker doctor.
In a bid to continue to cut down on head injuries, the NRL has placed independent doctors in a central video room to make rulings on whether on the field incidents should result in players being removed from the match.
Previously, the NRL had implemented injury spotters who were independent of the team doctors and informed them during the game when an incident occurred that they may have missed. However, these spotters had no powers over decisions surrounding the removal of players or determination of the severity of an incident.
After various incidents during Round 1 resulted in rulings from these independent doctors having players removed from the game after being cleared by their respective team doctors, many have called into question the power of these assessors and the need for clarity around how they're categorising the head knocks.
The rules were introduced not only to improve the Head Injury Assessment (HIA) protocol and welfare of the players but to ensure that teams were not using the HIA loophole, which would essentially give clubs the opportunity to get a fresh player on the field without having to use any of their interchanges.
The new system was called into question this past Saturday following two separate incidences that saw both Victor Radley and Billy Smith removed from the field following rulings from the independent doctor during the Roosters games against the Newcastle Knights.
Victor Radley/Billy Smith both ruled out for the game by independent Dr in bunker indicating they had displayed category 1 concussion symptoms. Change this year that indep. Dr can do this - previously could only suggest to club Dr that player needed to be assessed. pic.twitter.com/naWlgzsDyP
— NRL PHYSIO (@nrlphysio) March 12, 2022
Radley was initially cleared by the Roosters' team doctor following a collision with Knights five-eighth Jake Clifford but pulled only a few minutes later after the Bunker doctor called down and deemed the incident a category 1.
The decision in question for Radley's knock would later be confirmed as he eventually failed further checks and was ruled out of the game completely.
Smith's incident caused a little more confusion though, as the young star was pulled from the game in the 53rd minute even though he didn't recall the play he reportedly suffered the head knock until it was shown to him by team doctors.
“I think it’s a good idea. (But) Billy’s got no concussion - didn’t even remember an incident until the doctor showed him,” Roosters head coach Trent Robinson said.
“So for them to go category 1 instead of category 2 was tough for us. You’ve got to give some faith to the doctors to look at it as well. They don’t have any symptoms at all.
“But I think it’s right, what they’re trying to put in. But you’ve got to be careful.
Bulldogs centre Braidon Burns was marched from the field, visibly confused and with his hands in the air, ten minutes following an incident where he suffered a late blow from the opposition.
“Here is what happened, a head clash, the bunker there is that independent doctor of course, they have watched these replays over and over back in the bunker and they have said he must come off for a HIA,” Brenton Speed said on Fox League’s commentary.
“It is a good call, but why did it take so long, how many times did they look at it,” NRL legend Steve Roach said in reply.
Roosters head coach Trent Robinson commended the league for attempting to implement rules that are aimed at protecting players but urged officials that the system "needs to get better".
Cowboys head coach Todd Payton was similarly shocked by the rules, calling into question their effectiveness in deterring the Bulldogs from gaining a tactical edge through the system.
“Yeah it hurt us no doubt,” Payten said in the Cowboys post-match press conference.
“Whether that was deliberate on a couple of occasions I’m unsure, but certainly the game stopped when we had momentum more than a couple of times.”
“At ground level, you can’t see much, and there’s often something else going on you have your attention on, on the sideline,” Dr Gibbs told the Herald.
“CommBank Stadium is a good example. The benches are around the 25-metre mark, and the vision is on halfway. You have to walk 25-metre to see the vision, you have other things to do, another player or two on the bench, it’s just hard to get a good view of what’s going on.
”The other thing which is critical that they’ve changed, is we weren’t able to talk to the orange shirt (trainer). They might be behind the goalposts and you’d have to go find them. Crucial minutes were being wasted. Having the ability to talk to the orange shirt, talk to the Bunker doctor, it’s a massive improvement.”
ARLC chairman Peter V'landys has also come out in support of the new system, stating that the change was advocated by several club doctors to ensure "best practice" when it comes to head knocks within the game.
”It’s the doctors’ initiative, and we will do anything and everything for the welfare of players,” V’landys said. “Naturally, we listened to them.”
NRL head of football elite competitions Graham Annesley has today clarified that the independent doctor is "not making a clinical assessment", rather they're looking for signs of possible head injury and determining whether a player has shown indicators of it being either a category 1 or category 2.
The independent doctor has the final decision on category 1 or 2 HIAs, however, the club doctor will make a final assessment of category 2 HIAs.
Annesley pitched this new system, at its best, as a unified decision-maker whereby the independent doctor would be able to ensure no incident is left unchecked and a player who should be off the field, even if it's for just a category 2 ( minimum of a HIA assessment and 15 minutes before returning to play), is off the field.
“None of this removes from the club the responsibility to monitor these situations as well. It hasn’t just been taken off the clubs and handed to the NRL, clubs still have a responsibility – their medical staff and their coaching staff – to try and identify these instances to determine whether a player needs to come for an assessment or not," Annesley said.
Annesley also acknowledged the "clunky" nature with which the Bunker communicated these decisions throughout Round 1.
“It maybe was a bit clunky… but we’ve been meeting this morning, we’ve been talking about those processes (role of Bunker doctor) and we’ve been looking at how we can tweak them to make them more seamless,” he said.
“We’re going to tweak some things internally, and I think you’re going to see them much smoother and more seamless next weekend”.
The Roosters are expected to be meeting with Bunker officials today to receive more clarification around the decisions to remove Radley and Smith.
The NRL chief medical officer is also expected to review all incidences over the weekend to determine whether or not the categorisation of the knocks should be adjusted.