There was a healthy crowd on the Gold Coast to cheer on the Indigenous side as they ran out to take on the Maoris in the annual NRL All Star clash. There was a lot of cultural pride on the line as both teams prepared for the contest with traditional warrior displays. Both teams were keen to win, perhaps just a little bit too keen.
There is no other sport in the world which puts on an All Star exhibition game in which combatants go flat out at each other, with an intensity described by one player as being "finals like". The NFL has its Pro-Bowl, the NHL and NBA have All Stars games, rugby union has its Barbarian clashes, Premier League teams tour the world playing local teams and all of the games are played in the spirit of putting on an attacking exhibition. Sure, rugby league is not basketball, where the NBA's best players can turn off their defensive efforts for a one-off attacking spectacular, but an inkling of self-preservation was warranted.
From the opening kick-off it was clear that all of the players were leaving nothing in the sheds, as they charged into each other with reckless ferocity. Players were being hit hard, sometimes high, mostly in numbers and injuries ensued.
The most serious injury to Bulldogs forward Chris Smith could see him out for the season with a torn ACL. Others knocked out of the game were Sharks star Wade Graham and Titans half Tyrone Roberts with ankle injuries, Dragons prop Josh Kerr with a suspected MCL and Bulldogs fullback Dallin Watene-Zelezniak with a badly bruised lower back.
"The game still means a lot. Every player speaks highly of it, injuries can happen anywhere - it's part of any contact sport," Indigenous captain Joel Thompson explained.
It is true that injuries are part of rugby league, which outside of combat sports is one of the world's most brutal contact sports. However, anyone who managed to watch some of the trial matches played over the weekend would have witnessed players sharpening their combinations, working on their defensive patterns, shaking off some of the off-season rust, without really ripping in. Players ran hard, defenders put their bodies in the way, collisions happened, and so did the odd injury. But, there is a clear difference in the level of intensity between one of these trials and that displayed in the All Star game. It was similar to the gap in intensity between a club match and a State of Origin game.
The fans on the Gold Coast thoroughly enjoyed every hit and every fearless charge, these are key parts of the game they love. The atmosphere at the game was said to be incredible as both teams gave their all. Meanwhile, sitting at home watching the telecast, coaches and club fans alike cringed at the do-or-die attitude of the players involved. Every heavy collision, every prone player, every limp or hobble, threatening a good start to their 2020 NRL season.
They were playing for cultural pride in this All Star game, but it's the clubs that pay their salaries and need them firing for the start of the season. Because this game means so much to these players, it might be impossible to ask them to back off a little for their own safety. The NRL really needs to look at the viability of both this clash and the ridiculous Nines tournament being played so close to the start of a new NRL season.