Rugby’s real problems lie with increasing injury rates

Huge emphasis on size and physique is deterring players from taking the game up

Sam Warburton was forced to retire due to injury. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images

Sam Warburton was forced to retire due to injury. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images

 

In a summer which saw the premature retirements of the Lions captain Sam Warburton and the Newcastle prop Scott Wilson through injury, and a few months after the Northampton and Australia centre Rob Horne suffered paralysis in his right arm playing against Leicester, an article in a political magazine lamented rugby union’s deterioration as a spectacle and as an example to youngsters when it came to the conduct of players.

“It has become a nasty, dangerous, gladiatorial sport, played by men with too much muscle and too little skill,” wrote Gavin Mortimer in the Spectator. “A sport once synonymous with sporting a black eye is now better known for turning a blind eye.”

Mortimer compared the England football squad in the World Cup this summer, polite, presentable and showing an infectious enthusiasm for their sport, with the England rugby players in South Africa in June who were “a sullen and joyless bunch”. He praised the former’s model captain Harry Kane while noting Dylan Hartley, who missed the tour because of injury, had served suspensions totalling more than a year.

Mortimer, who said he spent 25 years playing the game, was writing from a mixture of sorrow and anger but there is a danger when comparing the present with the past of dappling the latter in sunlight. “This brutishness (on the field) is reflected in many of the players’ personalities. There has always been a touch of roguishness to rugby and, yes, sometimes that behaviour has gone too far … but it was rare and it was indulged because of the players’ exemplary behaviour on the pitch: referees were respected, their decisions obeyed, and the game was hard but fair.”

That behaviour in the amateur era was not so rare, it just tended to go unreported. There was no internet then, and so no danger of incidents going viral while the mainstream media connived at acts that were invariably born out of drink, not least because socialising with players was a feature of reporting then. More than a few clubs, and unions, had to resort to hush or compensation money.

Drinking was as much a part of the game then as training and players were then better able to hold their alcohol, which tended to be beer, than their counterparts today who tend to follow a long period of abstinence with binge-drinking.

Mortimer cites the England football squad as role models although a few of their players have been guilty of offences he indicts modern rugby players for, such as diving and feigning injury, but Hartley’s predecessor, Chris Robshaw, had a clean-cut image that did not prevent him from being constantly criticised. Warburton was an exemplar for young players, as were his predecessors as Lions captains, Paul O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll.

If “rugby drips with self-righteousness from the top down”, eyes that were blind in the amateur era have opened, if not yet fully.

The sport may have become overly confrontational, yet to find a way of preventing forwards from fanning out across the pitch, decreasing the number of collisions and creating more space, but far more spectators are paying to watch rugby than 30 years ago at club level.

The danger is that the emphasis on size and physique is deterring players at a time when investment in the grassroots in many countries is being cut to fund the professional game. Four players left the field in the first-half during Gloucester’s victory over Northampton last Saturday for head injury assessments. On the same afternoon, Cornell du Preez suffered a fractured larynx three minutes into his debut for Worcester, and required two operations. One year before, the Harlequins fly-half Demetri Catrakilis stopped breathing after sustaining a broken bone in his throat attempting a tackle against Gloucester.

Such incidents injure the sport more than a headline about a player behaving like a prat on drink or mouthing off to a referee in the heat of the moment. A number of leading players have called for a reduction in the maximum number of matches they are obliged to play in a year. One suggested 20 which provoked an indignant response from the Exeter coach, Rob Baxter who pointed out that, given their international commitments, they would barely play for their clubs in the Premiership, devaluing the tournament and potentially threatening the income that pays their wages.

There is certainly a case for a lessening of contact training and the faster the game becomes, the more difficult it will be for players who are too bulked up to sustain the pace. A limit on replacements would help, although it appears more likely that rolling substitutions will be allowed at some point. Scheming has deferred too much to big-hitting in a sport which used to have a little bit of everything rather than too much of a few things.

Mortimer referred to the former England and Lions centre, Will Greenwood, who said earlier this year that part of him would be relieved if his children did not want to play senior rugby. “While he is fearful of the sport’s physicality, for me it’s the vulgarity.” It is the latter threat, though, that will provide the rude awakening. – Guardian service

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