Gerry Thornley: Rugby’s duty of care for players now more essential than ever

Sport is at a crossroads and authorities must be seen to be actively making game safer

That was some opening weekend in the Heineken Champions Cup and how rugby needed it, even if it was merely a diversion.

Reading the harrowing revelations by Steve Thompson, Michael Lipman and Alix Popham regarding the symptoms they are suffering as a consequence of being diagnosed with early onset dementia, the emotional and emotive piece by Johnny Watterson in these pages on Benjamin Robinson last Friday, and so many more words, any rugby supporter would have had their perspective on the benighted game they love altered again.

Many of the features and phraseology associated with rugby increasingly sit more uncomfortably – the shuddering big hits, the gladiatorial bravery, players “putting their bodies on the line”, the clear outs that are tagged “good shots”.

Amidst the weekend’s entertainment, the best fare on offer since the end-of-summer resumption, one of the most pleasing aspects was that for all the power there was so much elusive footwork by the little guys as well.

Whether it was Cheslin Kolbe doing his thing in the Kingspan Stadium, or his Toulouse team-mate Antoine Dupont for that matter, Steff Evans and Gareth Davies helping the Scarlets to outwit and outmanoeuvre Bath, Louis Carbonnel and Gabin Villiere dissecting Sale Sharks on Saturday, and others, the relatively little ’uns shone in a game that had become increasingly dominated by behemoths.

It was a reminder that once upon a time rugby was meant to be a game of elusion as well as collisions. Perhaps too it was evidence that the welcome but long overdue attempts by the game to reduce the height of tackles is also providing more room for players of all shapes and sizes, which was meant to have been one of the game’s best and defining features.

But like much else in the game, more needs to be done, first and foremost to make it safer, but also due to it being under the microscope like never before. Rugby is a popular game, but it’s also an unpopular one and all the more so if it is seen not to protect the participants, which should be every official’s first responsibility. Everything else is secondary.

Hence, every failure to stamp out foul play will be magnified. A prime example was the penultimate game in the Tri Nations series, when New Zealand beat Argentina 38-0. In the 80th minute, with the All Blacks leading 31-0, their replacement prop Tyrel Lomax caught the Argentinian Lucio Sordoni on the side of the head with his arm when going off his feet for a needless “clear out”.

Despite being alerted to the incident by his TMO, referee Nic Berry inexplicably saw fit to only brandish a yellow card when for the sake of the sport it had to be red. Worse still, there wasn’t even a citing. This is not designed to be an anti-All Blacks stance. Foul play and dangerous clear-outs are committed by all teams, but they have to be eradicated, simply for reasons of player safety.

The examples don’t have to be that severe. At Thomond Park on Sunday, a late hit into the back of Conor Murray after he had executed a box kick and the second of two late hits on Munster’s replacement outhalf Ben Healy went unpunished without even a penalty.

More stoppages

Nor is this meant to be anti-English or anti-officials. In such a fast-moving sport, it is difficult for even four officials to catch everything that happens over the course of 80 minutes on a rugby pitch.

Even over the weekend, mindful of how the game is being watched forensically, it appeared as if there were more recourse to video replays in order to identify acts of foul play. The jobs of match officials, already difficult, have become even harder. It might mean more stoppages, more reviews, more yellow cards, more red cards, but so be it. Patience may be required.

No less than in foul play, rugby also has baggage in the way it adapted after its headlong rush into professionalism, which was by simply “beasting” their players and, as illustrated by Thompson’s account, this legacy endured into the Noughties.

This extended to perhaps delay in acknowledging the serious issue of head injuries and enacting law changes to make the game safer. There is obviously now the benefit of hindsight but there is also now improved medical advice and management of these injuries.

Reading the piece by in The Irish Times last Saturday by Jack Anderson, a professor of law at Melbourne University, it may transpire that players who played rugby before the early 2010s will have a more difficult case than those who played subsequently and have suffered brain trauma as a result of sustained impact hits.

Like the NFL, World Rugby conducted their own research into the rising number of concussions, but for credibility’s sake more independent research would be preferable.

That is why the example of the RCSI research with the Leinster Schools on training loads and injury rates is important. It is independent in nature, being funded by the charitable trust and receiving technological support from World Rugby. The results of this research will hopefully inform not only the game in this island but also internationally. Parents, teachers, coaches and players need those reassurances.

Latterly the more radical changes which the NFL made to their game have made American Football safer and now rugby must do the same. It’s not a question of optics, it’s about making the game safer and proving it to be so as well as being seen to do everything in its power.

In all of this, one has some sympathy for the former Munster, Irish and Lions team doctor, Dr Éanna Falvey, who inherited the position of World Rugby’s chief medical officer in January this year. Having been hit with all the endemic problems caused by the pandemic, he and others have an enormous and extremely difficult task on his hands.

But now more than ever, rugby needs to be seen to make the sport safer still, and prove it is doing so.