Chris Heighington has established himself as an ironman of the NRL.
Chris Heighington has established himself as an ironman of the NRL.

Why Heighno is proof NRL needs to reduce interchanges

CHRIS Heighington began life as one of those cup of coffee players.

Oh, he might make first grade, went the early scouting report. But only long enough for a cup of coffee before he would head back to the country to play bush football.

If hard work and a relentless toughness are anything to admire, though, then Heighington deserves a statue.

Heighington got his start after he turned up at a Wests Tigers open day trial. Anybody that owned a pair of footy boots, and some that didn't, went along.

He came with none of the trimmings. No managers were spruiking his name. No recruitment officers were sliding up alongside him, promising him a gold mine.

He just thought he could do it.

So he simply turned up at Leichhardt Oval one afternoon and gave nothing but effort and coach Tim Sheens thought he saw something in him and thanks heavens Sheens had a trained eye. Without it, Heighington might have gone back to Umina forever.

Heighington debuted for the Tigers in 2003.
Heighington debuted for the Tigers in 2003.

Now he is the poster that should be on the wall of every small child with a big dream.

Chris Heighington, unheralded, ran out for his 326th game in the NRL on Friday night. Of the nearly 9000 men who have played all the way back to 1908, he ranks 10th all time.

Thanks for the cuppa, Chris.

Statistics are a funny thing nowadays, though.

They can be misleading.

A front-rower can make four poor reads in defence that give away four tries, he can refuse to take the first hit up in every set because he wants to leave the tough run to his frontrow partner, but if the stats say he runs 190m everyone says he says he had a grand game.

They should be a guide and nothing more. A starting point.

The man Heighington surpassed to take his place in rugby league's top 10 is not just any player but a man of rare significance.

Geoff Gerard was rugby league's first 300-game player. It seemed almost unachievable when he finally cracked 300 games in 1988.

It took 80 years of rugby league for Gerard to be the first.

Penrith RL player Geoff Gerard (R) in undated photo.
Penrith RL player Geoff Gerard (R) in undated photo.

It was so hard it took six more years before rugby league had its next 300-game player, the Bulldogs warhorse Terry Lamb.

Rugby league is a different game nowadays, though.

Already this season we saw Johnathan Thurston and Billy Slater play their 300th games and John Sutton is on target to play his this season, as are Sam Thaiday and Simon Mannering.

Last year Paul Gallen, Luke Lewis and Ryan Hoffman passed their 300th games.

If Cameron Smith plays next season and has no trouble with injury he will become the first to play 400 games.

Cameron Smith is on track to play 400-plus games.
Cameron Smith is on track to play 400-plus games.

The quickness that they accumulate games these days are reminders the game is in constant evolution.

At the Fox League Lab, Aaron Wallace was asked for the total minutes Gerard played in his 325 games and the minutes Heighington played in his 325. Realising the request was serious he fell to the floor clutching his chest.

"They didn't measure minutes before 1988," he pleaded.

Gerard is a curious case because his total games have changed over the years.

The confusion centred around Penrith's refusal to include games off the bench in his overall total. Bench appearances were never counted but as the NRL moved more towards fresh reserves and into a 17-man game it became acceptable to include games off the bench.

Gerard's rising appearances after his career finished shows nothing is permanent in rugby league. Now it looks, with just a little hope attached, the game is set to make another small evolution.

The NRL's competition committee met on Friday and somewhere in their discussion they got around to talking about the one thing every rusted on fan in the game wants to see but nobody, yet, has the guts to commit.

Returning the game to a six-man interchange.

The NRL improved considerably when the game dropped from a 10-man interchange to an eight-man rotation last year.

It improved aesthetically once the game was allowed to get away from the need to play highly structured football necessary to artificially create space in the defence.

After two years, though, coaches have got their forwards fitter.

So another reduction is due.

The competition committee currently has Paul Green and Ivan Cleary in the room and later the topic will be part of the coach's committee and the large voice they throw across the game.

Coaches are the last group whose protests should be listened to here.

Coaches are terrified of tired players. Tired players make tired decisions, the one area they have no control over.

Some argued against the drop from 10 to eight for last season saying it would lead to more wrestling to slow down the play-the-ball (it didn't, it quickened the ruck because players had to make a decision between getting back 10m or being third, and often fourth, man in), they argued it would lead to more concussed players being forced to stay on the field (concussions are completely separate to replacements and were treated that way. Coaches found a way to make it work) and some argued more fatigued players would lead to more injuries.

Here the coaches were supported by the NRL's former medical adviser who argued fatigue would lead to injuries.

The claims frustrated at least one club boss.

"He never provided any evidence, he just said it," he said. "I'd sit there and wonder where it was coming from."

The AFL recently introduced changes to its rules after evidence showed rules designed to quicken the game and lessen fatigue were actually increasing injuries.

A similar shift has occurred in the NRL.

Last year, in the first season of reduced interchange, total games missed in the NRL dropped to 813 from 975 in 2016, 1018 (2015), 951 (2014), 1034 (2013) and 1068 (2012).

This season is tracking along similar numbers to last season.

More good players, playing more games.

Men like Heighington.

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