Paul Gallen reckons he did some fellow forwards a favour by punching Nate Myles, in the State of Origin biff that saw fighting banned from rugby league.
Gallen relived the incident for Wide World of Sports, saying that he was irked by a piece of dirty play from Myles in the game; Origin I of 2013 at ANZ Stadium.
The former NSW captain revealed last year in his autobiography that he was taking a stand against grubby acts from Queensland players.
“Nate twisted my knee in a tackle, just before Michael Jennings scored a try. I went to Nate and I said, ‘If you do that again, I’m gonna punch you in the head’,” Gallen said on The Captain and Coach.
The Captain and the Coach: Aggression in the NRL
“That was in the in-goal. Sammy Thaiday had an argument with me, a bit of back and forth there.
“There was less than a minute to go before half-time and Nate was having a run. So I did give him a little tap in the head and he rolled over and said, ‘Is that the best you’ve got?’ and gave me an elbow back.
“As he got up to play the ball, he gave me a big shove and said, ‘Is that the best you’ve got?’ and came charging towards me. As he was coming towards me, I just thought exactly that; that I’m gonna get in first, that I’m gonna punch him.
“So that’s how it all happened. I punched him and it was on for 30 seconds, and the obviously they were awarded the penalty.
“The game went on, we won the game and then the hoo-haa after the game with what had happened … it was State of Origin. I used to watch State of Origin as a kid and see the first fight, there was always dust-ups in Origin.
“What came out of it was a little bit surprising, I thought it was a little bit over the top. But the NRL had spoken to me and said they were thinking about getting rid of this anyway; I think that was just the straw that broke the camel’s back.
“Sure enough, the fighting in rugby league was cancelled after that.”
Punching was already well and truly on its way out, but the NRL decided after the Gallen-Myles fight to crack down further with sin-binning and suspensions.
The punching ban sparked some unwanted outcomes. Niggling play and trash-talk, from players who wouldn’t dare if they risked being punched, has arguably become more prevalent. Emotional flare-ups now result in shoving exchanges at worst, taking an exciting edge out of the game.
Gallen said that losing the threat of genuine violence had helped the less bloodthirsty forwards, not just smaller players. Modern forwards can generally run the ball without fear of being smashed by blatantly violent or dirty shots, and are no longer expected to dish them out.
Only a handful of forwards – Gallen nominated Jared Waerea-Hargreaves – are genuine enforcers who are always a risk of inflicting pain on rivals.
“I think it’s helped some forwards, too, I really do,” Gallen said.
“I think some forwards in the game who may not have liked that side of the game or may not have been willing to do anything when it came to that side of the game. I think it’s made some of them better players because of that, I really do.
“There’s no risk of someone slapping them or punching them in the head or having a real go at them on the field. That part of the game’s gone, so it has made some players better.
“It’s a real fine line … has it ruined the game, has it taken something away from the game? I don’t know. it’s been a long time now, it’s been five or six years where it hasn’t been allowed in and the game’s still as tough as ever.
“If it’s better for the game as a whole, as far as getting kids to play the game and not being involved, then I’m fine with it (punching being banned).”
Former NSW coach Phil Gould, also a 100-game first grade player, said that the game had come a long way from the times when forwards had to worry about being “maimed” by rival enforcers.
“I started in the ’70s and it was an extremely violent game. Intimidation was a huge part of the game,” Gould said on The Captain and Coach.
“I guess it was a survival test for a lot of players, coming into first grade and going through that initiation not once but every time you played. The first 20 or 30 minutes, they used to call it the softening-up period. It was accepted by referees, it was accepted by the media, it was accepted by the public. it was part of what they enjoyed watching.
“After 20 or 30 minutes, we were all pretty tired because we weren’t full-time footballers like today; we had to get on with playing football. But it was a very real part of the game, the violence of it.
“That’s been brought down to a lesser level, the violence, in these days of course. But as Paul says, it’s still a very physically-demanding game to play.
“It was a big part of personalities back in the [old] game, it was a big part of what you had to endure, what you had to survive. If you didn’t come through that, if you were intimidated by that, chances were you weren’t going to make it and you weren’t going to play much first grade football.”