Jordi Murphy: Outlawing ‘jackalers’ would be a stupid idea
‘If you are anywhere near the ball you take the opportunity to get over it,’ says Ulster man
Jordi Murphy: “You can get injured at any time. But you are in a vulnerable position when you are over the ball.” Photograph: Getty Images
Rugby’s unsolved health and safety issue for its most revered performer – the openside – has turned these unique athletes into an endangered species.
Look at two modern greats: Lions and Wales captain Sam Warburton’s body gave up on him age 29, while Sam Cane, the All Black heir to Richie McCaw, hopes to return from a broken neck this summer.
Look at injury rates for Irish flankers; Josh van der Flier and Dan Leavy currently exist in medium to long term rehabilitation [again]. Leavy (24) will miss the World Cup. Van der Flier (25) hopes to return from groin surgery before the World Cup deadline in August.
Seán O’Brien, during last Sunday’s defeat of Toulouse, looked a little like his former destructive self. Following a horrid run of injury, the growing presumption was that this 32-year-old – Irish rugby’s most decorated backrow – would never be the same again.
“People said that before the Lions tour,” remarked another member of the club Jordi Murphy, “and look how Seánie did then. And he has come back again and played well last week.”
Under scorching sunshine, O’Brien quickly discarded his trademark scrumcap to perform comparably to the heroics of July 2017.
Murphy, like fellow Ulster tearaways Marcell Coetzee and Sean Reidy, has known serious injury in his 28 years, but a kamikaze attitude remains essential to shine at openside. In fact, he sought the move from Dublin to Belfast to ensure increased exposure to the risks of his chosen position.
“I’ve never once been over a ball and thought ‘aw, if I get injured...’ It’s just an instinctive thing,” he said at an Ulster media event in the Gibson Hotel. “It’s the position you are in; if you are anywhere near the ball you take the opportunity to get over it. Otherwise you may as well step away from the game.
“Dan’s injury was really unfortunate,” Murphy noted of the horrific damage Leavy sustained in the Champions Cup quarter-final. “Just the way some people were positioned and the way he was hit. Josh van der Flier was forced onto the operating table when damaged over the ball against France. “My [injury against New Zealand in 2016] I was just running along and the knee went. You can get injured at any time. But you are in a vulnerable position when you are over the ball.”
The idea of outlawing “jackalers” from rugby could drastically alter the game. Murphy calls that a “stupid” idea. Ways to avoid the multiple neck trauma these players suffer would be to instruct referees to police the human torpedoes seeking to remove them before stealing or slowing possession.
“I just think it is something that is not refereed enough. There are plenty of times when I am over the ball and I feel like I am getting hit from the side. There are less times I can count on my hand where I can remember the referee blowing it up and saying ‘you have come in on the side and hit him.’
“Maybe that’s a part of the game they need to start cracking down on because when the refs are told to do something you really notice the penalty rate for that area goes through the roof.”
The remedy sounds so simple, but Murphy’s voice is now added to pleas for protection by O’Brien and Warburton in 2018.
“Refs,” said O’Brien last year, “want you to survive a clean-out. How many do they want us to survive? It’s the third lad that does the damage to you.”
“Maybe,” Warburton suggested, “the opposition team cannot commit more than two players in a ruck.”
The issue was not on the agenda at a recent rules symposium in Paris to make rugby safer. In the meantime opensides will keep entering the danger zone blind to incoming neck hits because they are arched over opposition ball.
“I have no problem with protecting the man going over the ball,” Murphy concluded. “If you are going to take that out of the game it would be stupid. It is one of the best parts of the game, that you can contest the ball, especially if you don’t have ruckers coming in from your side quick enough. I just think that would be stupid.”