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The late and great 'Killer' Ken Kearney was part of a rugged pack of forwards who knew how to hang onto the ball and pummel the defensive line. It was during a time of unlimited tackles when all games had a traditional 'softening up' period - no quarter asked, and none given - and far less compromising than what we have in the modern game.
A World War Two veteran, Ken Kearney served in the RAAF before representing his country in rugby union. In 1948 he joined rugby league whilst in England, playing with Leeds before linking up with St George where he stayed until 1962. A ruthless professional and champion hooker, 'Killer' instigated revolutionary coaching methods and was captain to six grand final victories. He played for New South Wales and Australia and has a representative record which speaks for itself.
Kearney played when scrums were properly contested. A cagey hooker, he was supported by a strong pair of props who in turn were backed by a well-drilled second row to drive them forward, and a lock forward to keep it straight. They only needed timing and brute strength to make every scrum a winner. Sounds easy, but the opposition would have their say and the front row was no place for the faint-hearted.
With much of the skill and off-ball shenanigans being hidden from the public view, the writing was on the wall for the real scrum. The advent of 'good TV' and a rise in scrum penalties, particularly in the 1980s, saw the end of half backs feeding the ball squarely into the tunnel. The rule interpretations altered to allow the ball to be tossed into the second row, effectively making the scrum hooker's role redundant.
The introduction of limited tackles and subsequent interpretations has also done much to take the game away from the players.
Old stagers referred to a time when forwards would grind out territory by forcing their opponents back - regardless of who controlled possession. It was up to the players to enforce their authority on the territory and the ball. This method of battle was still a coaching tactic up until just a few years ago. Nowadays, when a ball-carrier is swamped and driven back by defenders, the referee has an annoying habit of calling 'held'. This begs the question, would the referee call 'held' if the ball-carrier, with the support of his team mates, was being driven forward?
While many will point to these as improvements, I'm not so sure. For over 50 years, the game prospered quite well without the need for 'clayton' scrums, limited tackles and the made-to-order mind-set that gave rise to the modern TV game.
Recollections are but golden memories.
'Killer' was arguably the best hooker in his day and he knew how to win scrums, but he also knew when to lose them. If his forwards were unable to crack the opponent's line, Kearney would pack down and deliberately kick the ball into the opposition's side of the scrum. In the next ruck, the lumbering rake would take up position in the defensive line and say, in full earshot of the opposition, "right, let's kill the bastards!"
This signalled his team mates to go hell-for-leather with spears and coat hangers, delivering their opponents to the turf with ruthless tenacity. It was an onslaught which would leave in its wake an assembly of broken teeth, fractured ribs and dazed heads. Inevitably the ball would be jolted loose and the opposition wouldn't want to touch it again.
Perhaps this is what our forefathers called limited tackle... the real version as enforced by the players on the football battlefield, not by some pansy rules. To the old guard, the four-tackle and subsequent six-tackle rule must have looked like an absurd notion where a team willingly handed the ball back to their opposition!
I hasten to add that I understand the whys and wherefores of modern rugby league. Nevertheless, I wonder if we have gone too far in appeasing the beast, just to enable us supporters to enjoy the comforts which come with being a higher class of cattle. With progress there always seems to be a price to be paid. The rules, their interpretations, and TV-friendly policies have lorded over an erosion of what was the very essence of the game.