There is an unmistakable sense that rugby union, and its century of tradition and pomp, moved towards an unfamiliar and darker place this week. Bernard Le Roux's light-hearted remark that perhaps Johnny Sexton should "wear a helmet" for today's Six Nations match against France brought to mind an old conversation about the sport rugby is constantly compared to these days, American football.
When Channel 4 began broadcasting NFL games in the mid-1980s, it was marketed as a strange and violent exoticism, beamed into Irish and British living rooms. The first game ever shown featured the Cleveland Browns and Denver Broncos (and who couldn’t like Cleveland for their stubbornly anti-showbiz name?).
Years later, in a discussion about this monumental TV moment, a friend admitted that he had, as a 10-year-old, been appalled and disappointed when the stars appeared on the field of play wearing not only helmets but pads. He thought they were sissies and turned on Tomorrow's World in disgust. It was hardly a coincidence that this friend grew up in the heartland of Kerry's football dominion.
Le Roux meant no malice when he spoke about his Racing Metro team-mate and was merely acknowledging the basic truth about rugby: a primary objective of the game is to hit your opponent really, really hard. After an uncomfortable week for international rugby revolving around the probability that Wales' George North was permitted to play on while concussed, it could be that Le Roux unintentionally forecast the future of the game.
The general expectation is that the visitors will instruct Mathieu Bastareaud, their terrifically athletic 19-stone centre, to come at speed onto flat passes and crash through Sexton. Ireland's potency doesn't quite depend on its number 10 but they become a dramatically reduced force if he is out of the equation.
So Bastareaud will be expected to test Sexton. But test what, precisely? His willingness to tackle? His physical courage? Both have been illuminated vividly time and time again, not least against Bastareaud himself in the 68th minute of the corresponding fixture a year ago, when Sexton was knocked out cold after trying to bring the French man down. The slow motion replay made that incident look exceptionally violent. Even now, there is something shocking about the impact between the two men. There were a few sickening moments as the Irishman lay supine when nobody could be sure just how serious the injuries were.
The chances are very good that Sexton will be fine this afternoon. Desperate as he is to play for Ireland, there is no way he would put his long-term health at risk for one match. And there is absolutely no way Joe Schmidt believes Sexton is anything less than one hundred per cent ready.
But that doesn’t change the fact that the French team will set out to ascertain whether Sexton is in any way prone to a repeat of the concussions which have sidelined him for three months. And it doesn’t change the fact that the physical size of the players and the speed at which they come into the tackle means that more and more players are vulnerable to the kind of head-hits suffered by North in Cardiff last Friday night.
Rugby has reached a crossing point. The unprecedented combination of strength and speed has become one of the thrills of the game. Twenty years ago, the international unveiling of New Zealand's Jonah Lomu at the Rugby World Cup was a serendipitous moment for a sport trying to establish itself as a professional entity. Anybody could understand and appreciate the sight of this huge and hugely impressive Kiwi trampling all over the best that England's public schools could offer up. Lomu was referred to in that word which is deemed praiseworthy only in the sporting lexicon: a freak. It turned out that he had merely presaged the future of the game.
There is something primal and darkly exciting about the possibility of a player like Bastareaud making smithereens of international defensive lines. He is the quintessence of the modern rugby player. Most of the time, the collisions are fine. These players spend morning after morning learning not just how to mete out tackles but how to absorb them.
It is okay for those who love the game of rugby to be largely clueless about what happens when two contemporary rugby players collide in a way that causes a head injury to one or both. But when you read of someone with the insight of Barry O’Driscoll – a former international player, an uncle of Brian O’Driscoll, a doctor and formerly the chief medical adviser to the IRB – quoted as saying, “These people are playing a new game, a different game and they are being experimented on,” then you have to pause. Something about that statement rings loud and true.
Glimmers of space
O’Driscoll has been banging this drum for some time and resigned his position with the IRB (now World Rugby) because of his unease at the way in which concussion cases are dealt with. Rugby is a different game to that which his nephew played when he first lined out for Ireland against Scotland in the old Lansdowne Road. There were glimmers of space then through which to work magic.
The new order – the bulk, the defensive systems, the organisation – have all but made those vanish. The only way to create them is to bulldoze through opposition defences and then wreak havoc during those seconds when the defence is disorganised and rallying. The tactic is straight from the playbook of the American Civil War.
The hits have become part of the game. Somehow, rugby has carried something of the bloody-minded romance – the patriotism – of the amateur international tournament into the new game. Rugby is a brutally raw contest. That is what makes these afternoons so compelling and why rugby has never enjoyed such popularity.
Still, there is something bleak and reductive about the fact that France’s Philippe Saint-André, who as a player represented the triumph of the small guy – all fleet of mind and elusive running so lacking in the game now – will call upon his frightening centre to lower his shoulder and charge into Ireland’s number 10 again and again.
What Irish fan will not be slightly nervous for Sexton? He will be fine. The game will go on. But this week, something changed in rugby and the questions will grow louder. Has rugby become dangerous? Is it ethical to watch rugby as it is played today? And maybe soon it will be the turn of the Americans to watch Europe’s prestige collision sport and ask what may become an obvious question: hey, shouldn’t those guys be wearing helmets?