John Sattler's death shines fresh spotlight on NRL's battle with concussion

The rugby league great's death has highlighted a serious issue facing the sport.

Pictured right is rugby league great John Sattler and Kalyn Ponga on the left.
League great John Sattler's death has helped shine a spotlight on the concussion debate dominating the game in the wake of Kalyn Ponga's (L) latest head injury. Pic: Getty

One of the enduring legacies that John Sattler has left on the world of rugby league is his reputation as being one of the toughest men to ever play the game. Sattler's death at 80 has sparked tributes across the rugby league world for a player perhaps best remembered for leading his South Sydney team to a premiership in 1970, after playing the majority of the grand final with a broken jaw.

Sattler won four premierships with the Rabbitohs and also captained Australia three times. It was his courageous effort in 1970 though - when a 10th minute punch from Manly's John Bucknall shattered his jaw in three places - that best summed up just how tough Sattler was.

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"If anyone is to epitomise the true spirit of the South Sydney Rabbitohs it is John Sattler," Souths chairman Nicholas Pappas said on Monday afternoon, following news of the league great's death. "He bled red and green. He would do anything for his teammates. He never took a backwards step. He always led from the front.

"He was loved by everyone connected with the Rabbitohs, whether it be one of his former teammates who he led to premiership glory, or the man in the street who loved South Sydney just as much as he did. He was tough and brave but fair, uncompromising on the field and empathetic off it, and he truly epitomised everything that we want the Rabbitohs to be."

Sattler's death has shone a spotlight on the long-term health effects that bruising footy carers have on current and former players. The league great's son Scott - who won an NRL premiership with Penrith in 2003 - says he's convinced his father's deteriorating health was a direct consequence of playing in one of the most brutal eras the sport has ever known.

“Dad was diagnosed officially last year with dementia,” Scott Sattler revealed to The Daily Telegraph in 2021. “I’ve always suspected for a lot longer that he was suffering from memory loss.

“I have no doubt the punishment dad copped during his career has played a role in his health today. He suffered a stroke a few years ago and that is also a factor.

“It’s sad to see, what I’d give to be able to sit and talk rugby league like we used to for hours. I’ll never get that again, this is the effect of rugby league.”

It's little wonder there has been so much concern around Kalyn Ponga's future. The Newcastle captain has been sidelined indefinitely after suffering his fourth concussion in 10 months, during the round two win over the Wests Tigers.

John Sattler, pictured here with fellow Souths legends Bob McCarthy and George Piggins in 2014.
John Sattler (R), with fellow Souths legends Bob McCarthy and George Piggins in 2014. (Photo by Renee McKay/Getty Images) (Renee McKay via Getty Images)

League hard man Mark Carroll reveals CTE diagnosis

Renowned rugby league hard man Mark 'Spudd' Carroll has also spoken out for the first time after being told he's likely suffering from CTE (Chronic traumatic encephalopathy). The Manly great is calling for the NRL to step up and fund brain scans for former players after revealing he's been told he suffers from CTE - a brain condition linked to repeated head injuries.

While CTE can't be properly diagnosed until after death, Carroll says specialists have told him he's definitely got it. Speaking to 7News on Monday night, Carroll said he was forced into action after watching a confronting segment about Mario Fenech in which the South Sydney great and his family opened up about his battle with dementia. After undergoing tests on his brain, Carroll was told he suffers from CTE.

“Mate, I just broke up in tears,” he said. “I said, ‘am I going to die?’ It was a week after Paul Green took his life. It’s bloody horrible, you dish it out but you don’t want to hear the consequences.”

Pictured here, rugby league great Mark Carroll and his family.
Mark Carroll has opened up on his CTE diagnosis. Image: Instagram/Getty

The NRL recently introduced an 11-day stand-down period for concussed players, in a massive change aimed at reducing the risk of brain injuries for players. It means that NRL players who have suffered a concussion will miss up to two matches in order to recover properly from any head knocks.

The game has also introduced harsher penalties for players found guilty of making illegal contact to the head of opponents, with greater education around head knocks and concussion at the forefront of the sport. Carroll insists there is more the game can do, and has called on the NRL to fund testing for current and former players such as Sattler and himself - who have suffered from issues around head injuries.

“There is a duty of care, I really believe that,” he said. “Look after players in my era and also my heroes in the era before that and the eras before that. $900 for a PET scan. We’re not covered with Medicare or any health fund but any player who’s living in silence where I’ve been.... come out and get tested, and the league pick up the bill."

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