Like the vast majority of you reading this column, I have never met Alex McKinnon or Jordan McLean.
I imagine, though, they are just like the thousands of other players I have met during my time in rugby league. They would be hard-working youngsters, both full of ambition and hoping to make their mark in this challenging game.
The fact they have the talent, toughness and determination to rise to the level of playing NRL football places both of them in the very elite category of those who ever pulled on a boot as a kid to play the game.
This is a tragedy. Two lives have been changed forever.
Mind you, we need to keep perspective. Whatever penalty and pain Jordan is suffering as a result of this terrible incident, it pales into absolute insignificance when compared to what Alex and his family are experiencing right now.
It would be like comparing the smallest droplet of moisture you could possibly produce, with all the water, in all the oceans, on every planet, in every galaxy ever created.
Alex and his family will need all the love and support our rugby league community can give as they face the extreme challenges ahead.
That’s not to say that Jordan won’t need support as well.
I totally understand the pain and very raw emotion that those close to Alex and the Newcastle club are feeling at this time. I have been through very similar circumstances a couple of times during my time in this game. My heart honestly bleeds for them.
Having said that, I do feel a real need to say a few words in support, and perhaps even defence of Jordan McLean.
In my attempt to do so, I am agonising about how I can find the right words to say without hurting those who have been left devastated by Alex’s injury. Not for one moment would I ever think of saying anything that was going to hurt these people.
As it stands, Jordan McLean now wears the blame for what has happened to young Alex. I don’t think that is right. I don’t believe Jordan McLean should have to solely carry the burden of guilt for what has happened here.
I honestly believe this tackle was a terrible, terrible accident. The guilty verdict and suspension handed down by the members of the NRL judiciary left me with feelings of anger, emptiness and frustration, all at the same time.
The suspension will come and go. That’s not the point of what I’m trying to say.
It’s the fact the ‘‘guilty’’ verdict tells us that one man, and one man only, is to blame for what happened in this tackle.
That is just plain wrong.
The professional game of rugby league is to blame. The evolution of the tackle process is to blame.
The constant action and reaction between the coaches and the rules officials over the past 30 years is to blame.
The absolute obsession of coaches with the speed of the play-the-ball as the be-all and end-all of what wins rugby league games is to blame.
The self-interest, the selfishness and the short-sightedness of those who have influenced the rules, combined with the weakness, lack of knowledge and lack of foresight of those who have succumbed to these pressures to change the rules and interpretations are to blame.
When Jordan Mclean and his two Melbourne Storm teammates came together with Alex McKinnon in those fateful moments during this match, they were all doing exactly what they had been coached and trained to do.
All of them had been through this action more than a thousand times before, in training and in matches. Sadly, though, on this occasion, it all went horribly wrong.
You can watch this tackle a million times over and dissect it as many ways as you like. You can slow it down frame by frame and analyse every move as it happens in agonising sequence.
All you are left with is feelings of “if only”. If only this player didn’t do this. If only this player didn’t do that.
The truth of the matter is that in real speed, in the heat of the game, this tackle just went horribly wrong, with devastating results.
The big question is: “Should we have seen this coming?”
I don’t think the players are to blame at all. I blame the system.
It is too soon to write the column I want to write on the subject of tackles in rugby league. Actually, the truth is that it is far too late to write the column I want to write.
I had begun writing this column during the pre-season when I had watched a few trial games following the introduction of the rule aimed at eradicating the terrible “cannonball” tackle where the third defender into the tackle would attack the legs of the ball carrier as he was held in a standing position by two other defenders.
The immediate result arising from this change in interpretation was an obvious speeding up of the game and the advantage in the speed of the play-the-ball being handed back to the attacking team.
As history has shown us, though, for every rule change or new action that takes place in this tackle process, there is always an immediate and opposite reaction from coaches to swing the balance of power back the other way.
The common adjustment from almost all teams to this new rule was for the third defender to now hit the already well contained and standing ball carrier around the thighs and waist area, rather than their previous target area around the knees or ankles, before applying an ever so subtle ‘'lift'’ to one of the ball carrier’s legs to immobile his leg drive and make it easier for all three defenders to slowly pull him down to a helpless position on the ground to control the “ruck speed”.
That’s what this is all about, controlling the speed of the pay-the-ball.
Not that many will have the courage to admit it, but I’m sure there would have been a number of coaches who were not comfortable with where this was heading.
I am very confident most of the coaches hate coaching this tackling and wrestling stuff. I am just as confident some of them don’t know how to coach anything else.
What is certain though – and I believe all the coaches will agree on this point – is if you don’t coach this stuff in the NRL, you will lose. You will get left behind because the rules and their interpretations will disadvantage and punish your team. And we all know how important it is to win.
I could fill every page of this newspaper with the history of the evolution of the tackle. I can pinpoint the times of change and who was most influential in forcing such change.
Even now I hear the ridiculous suggestions that we need to return to a five-metre rule, or ban two- and three-man tackles. These are not solutions.
Changing even one small rule can have such a dramatic and unwelcome effect on the way the game is played. That’s been the problem with the game for years now.
We have seen short-sighted and poorly researched rule changes being implemented without due consideration to where it would take our game.
Anyway, I am running out of space and I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface on this issue.
I have often said that if I could be 21 again just for one hour, I would want to spend the whole hour playing rugby league. The only proviso is that I could go back and play it in an earlier era.
A lot of what we have changed about the game since that time has led us to where we are today – and it's not all good.
Anyway, my main point is that I believe this incident was a terrible accident. But it was an accident we should’ve seen coming.
I wish we could turn back time and save Alex. I wish we could turn back time and save Jordan, too.