Owen Doyle: Professional game a dangerous place for amateur players

A non-stop Trojan effort due to ability gap raises a very serious player welfare issue

I dreamed a dream the other night, more of a nightmare really. For reasons not revealed to me in my slumber, Ireland would not be able to field a team for England's visit to the Aviva in next season's Six Nations.

That got me thinking, while I prepared the much needed first coffee of the day. What if that was to be a reality? If the only solution was to select a team made up of amateur players from the All-Ireland league, I suppose that would be done. The financial imperative would be enormous.

But should it done? Would it be safe? What about the welfare of the players?

And yet, that’s exactly what happened when the Ireland Women’s team, deliberately depleted by the absence of their contracted Sevens players, travelled to play England in Welford Road last week.

It was crystal clear from what we saw that amateurs should not play against professionals, and that dictum surely applies to any sport. Take boxing – it's unthinkable to imagine the Irish amateur champion jumping into the ring to confront Tyson Fury, with anything but a battering on the way.

It was no discredit, none at all, to the Irish players that England charged home, nailing all of 69 points to none, including 11 tries, in the process.

Overpowering scrum

The English pack is a very well-coached unit, and their scrum was overpoweringly dominant. The cohesively timed shove put on massive pressure, steamrolling the Irish forwards backwards at pace, even when it was Ireland’s throw-in.

The force coming through on to necks and spines in these situations is immense, and impossible to resist.

That, in turn, translates into a significant level of danger which, according to the number of messages pinging to my phone, was noticed by many others. It was also difficult to watch penalties being awarded against a team striving to do its utmost but, inevitably, finding things just too hard.

The referee, Australia’s Amber McLachlan, might well have ordered uncontested scrums, which was an option available to her. It would have helped Ireland get a bit more of the ball, and, of course, England would hardly have approved, but it would have been a heck of a lot safer.

Ireland, with very little go-forward possession, were forced to make a staggering amount of tackles. Think of a number not far short of 200 and you’re on the money, a non-stop Trojan effort which speaks volumes: but it does raise another very serious player welfare issue.

After the break two of these tackles resulted in cards, as efforts were made to stop the home team offloading, “thou shalt not pass it” being rugby’s new commandment.

Sene Naoupu was red-carded for a high hit on Emily Scarratt, who was remarkably celebrating her 100th cap.

Earlier, McLachlan had handed out yellow to Dorothy Wall. The result of this tackle was a gruesome, deep cut above the eye of England winger Jess Breach. We can be sure Wall was as horrified at this outcome as everyone else; but the outcry here, had the roles been reversed, would have been completely justified.

The pictures of the injury are disturbing, and it’s yet another lesson in why the height of tackles must come down – though why such a lesson is still needed is beyond understanding.

There will be those who say it’s all part of professional sport, and injuries are unavoidable.

Sorry, but there is a huge number who disagree with this viewpoint, and it must not be allowed to prevail. Ireland, too, had a bad injury of their own, and it was distressing to see Eimear Considine stretchered off. It made the toughest of days seem even tougher.

It was a terrible indictment of the IRFU that, late last year, the players felt compelled to write to the Government in relation to their issues. The initial response, a PR disaster from HQ, demonstrated that they were absolutely correct to do so; the IRFU was quickly put back in its box by Minister of State for Sport, Jack Chambers.

However, new chief executive Kevin Potts’s unequivocal apology, additional investment, and the creation of the new role of head of women’s performance and pathways, has done much to convince the players that things will alter for the good.

As all of this played out, Anthony Eddy, the man responsible for women's rugby, decided to go back to Australia to pursue other challenges. The IRFU thanked him for his services, stated that his departure was not linked to the recent report carried out on women's rugby, and off he went; but it's impossible not to think that the buck was stopping with him.That self-same buck, of course, doesn't seem to have reached the desk of his boss David Nucifora.

So, while it is a shame that Ireland have missed out on World Cup qualification, it mightn’t be a bad thing to avoid England again, just at the moment. And avoid New Zealand too, they are gearing up to stop the English, and, indeed, the French; they suffered heavy defeats to both of them last autumn. The tournament is in their own back yard, and, as defending champions, they absolutely want to win it, and will leave no stone unturned in their quest for gold.

Having recently lost head coach, Glenn Moore, who had little option but to step down after a review of the Black Ferns was highly critical of the management of certain squad members, the NZRU did not hang about. Moving quickly, they have immediately installed the highly respected coach Wayne Smith, alias the "professor", to lead the new ticket, where the very familiar names of World Cup winner Graham Henry and scrum guru Mike Cron are also to be found. That is a highly talented grouping, and it will do a lot in the months which remain to the tournament's kick-off.

When, or if, New Zealand and England come together, the match will be a contest of sheer white heat, the scrummaging and the tackling will be fierce. It will not be a place for amateurs.