Cameron Smith makes big call on divisive NRL kick-off debate amid growing pressure

The NRL legend has finally given his thoughts on how the code should approach the controversial decision.

Maroons legend Cameron Smith has defended the NRL kick-off and called for it to remain as the debate was reignited after the ANZAC Day clash between the Dragons and the Roosters. On the weekend, the opening tackle of the game saw Moses Suli knocked out when he collided with Jared Waerea-Hargreaves from the kick-off.

The debate about changing the rules around the kick-off, to lower the chance of a concussion due to a head knock, started earlier this year. And after the clash on Thursday, both Shane Flanagan and Trent Robinson admitted the opening action of the game or a restart could be set for a revamp.

NRL legend Cameron Smith (pictured) has backed for the kick-off to remain in the game. (Getty Images)
NRL legend Cameron Smith (pictured) has backed for the kick-off to remain in the game. (Getty Images)

And the debate has carried on into the week with fans and players completely divided on the topic. On NRL 360 on Monday, NRL great James Graham was adamant the kick-off should remain and disagreed with reporter Dean Ritchie who claimed the league should look at other avenues to restart a match. Graham was speaking from experience as often one of the first players to take the hit-up of a match or restart for his team.

And NRL legend Smith has now given his thoughts. The legendary No.9 was not one to make a hit-up at the start of a match and acknowledged as such. However, he feels the game loses part of its identity if the kick-off was altered or scaped altogether.

Cameron Smith kicking the ball.
Cameron Smith (pictured) taking a kick-off.

“I think we need to keep it, it’s what our game is all about, as soon as you take that away, what is our game,” Smith said on SEN Radio on Tuesday. “I haven’t had to stand on the back fence of a rugby field and had to return one of those balls from a kick-off but what’s the alternative?

“Are we going to give that side that just scored a try a restart from their 20m line with a tap or a play-the-ball. I don’t think we can take it out of our game.”

Smith claimed a change in tackling technique could help reduce the chance of a concussion. “Why don’t we work on our technique, put a bit more time into our tackling technique," he added. "Make sure that we’re not standing up tall and getting our heads in front of arms and forearms, and the guy who’s returning the ball, in front of his melon as well.

"Why don’t we start coaching a bit better technique to make better tackles. “It’s a part of the game unfortunately that we’re not going to be able to remove entirely is the chance of having head knocks. It’s a really difficult one because it’s a very sensitive subject at the moment, the head knocks and the concussions and what it could potentially lead to down the track… but I just think the kick-off is such an important part of our game.”

The NRL introduced a new ruling around kick-offs and drop outs in 2024 to encourage shorter attempts so teams can regain the ball. This was also in part to reduce the chances of a player getting a concussion from a big hit-up. But the debate around rule changes to the kick-off has resurfaced after the Suli incident.

Graham has been an advocate for player welfare since his retirement having admitted he suffered a number of scary concussions throughout his playing career. But the former Dragons forward does not want to see the game move away from the kick-off. “If you want the game to be (completely) safe, you’re playing the wrong game,” Graham said on NRL 360.

“You’re watching the wrong game. You cannot... If you view the game through the prism of safety and that’s all you view it through...Is there an unacceptable risk of injury (here)? I say no.” Maroons great Corey Parker believes the NRL will soon make a change to the rule with concussion and player safety at the forefront of rule changes. He suggested a team receiving the ball must make two passes before the first tackle. This would stop players lining-up and running into the defensive line at full force.

Adam Reynolds kicking the ball.
Adam Reynolds (pictured) taking a kick-off.

While there have been a number of players throwing up solutions to the debate the issue is there is no clear path for the NRL to take. And Dragons coach Flanagan admitted on the weekend after watching his player Suli get knocked out that he didn't have an answer either. “It’s a terrible way to start a game, and we did miss him because he’s powerful from the back of the field. We couldn’t win that battle from the back of the field and we were always kicking from inside our 40,” Flanagan said in the post-match press conference.

“We want to play this really tough gladiator sport, and we want to get down there – especially off kick-offs – and have really good contact with front-rowers. But we see it too often. I don’t know the answer, but we see it too often. When it happens to one of your players, it’s not nice to see. I don’t know how we stop it, unless we start with a play the ball, and that’s not something I’d like to see.

“In the modern game, we can’t have these concussions. We need to look after the players. The short dropouts and all that have probably changed it a little bit, but I don’t know the answer.”