Six Nations devalued by plague of injuries
The Six Nations Championship, beloved of rugby fans around the world, is in danger of being seriously devalued this season by injuries.
Modern-day rugby, it increasingly appears, is like an old-style battlefield, bodies strewn all over it.
So many players in so many countries are now injured, many of them quite seriously, that we are looking at a diminished Six Nations when it gets underway this day week.
How else can you describe a championship which will see England play most of their programme without two-thirds of their best back-row, including their captain, not to mention their most exciting lock-forward, for the whole tournament?
Ireland have lost their two best full-backs, both to long-term injuries, and will be forced to mix and match to fill this key position.
Wales will play the whole tournament without two-thirds of their front-row, the two missing men both Lions. Worse still, the Welsh have already lost a key midfield playmaker and two other centres.
This appalling series of injuries means that, in many cases, what we will see in the Six Nations are second or even third-choice players in a variety of teams and positions.
Coaches are struggling to fill the gaps and, by and large, they will struggle to find suitable quality replacements.
This is the price the game is paying for the ludicrous physicality of the sport in its current version. Players are being hammered on the training fields and hammered in matches. Smashing into opponents has become a sort of warped, macho mindset. Trouble is, many of the perpetrators are not only damaging their opponents, but also themselves.
If this glut of injuries were occurring only at junior levels, you could argue that a lack of proper fitness was the problem and cause. But you certainly can't say that about those involved in the professional game at the highest levels.
If this situation does not alarm those charged with administering the game, then they should be ashamed.
The individual nations will brush aside such talk, suggesting replacements can always be found and there won't be much difference between those players and the first-choice men anyway. After all, the professional game nowadays is about squads, not just teams, we are told.
But that argument falls flat when some of the best players in the northern hemisphere either won't make a single appearance in the tournament or will miss most of the matches.
It has to be termed 'a devalued tournament' given the absence of such quality.
Ireland will be without full-backs Rob Kearney and Geordan Murphy, plus, for at least part of the tournament, another Lion in No 8 Jamie Heaslip, along with wingers Andrew Trimble, Tommy Bowe and Shane Horgan.
England have lost their captain Lewis Moody, best blind-side flanker Tom Croft, a 2009 Lion in South Africa, plus their most dynamic lock, Courtney Laws. Moody's likely replacement, South African-born flanker Hendre Fourie, is also struggling to make it.
France are without hooker Dimitri Szarzewski for the entire tournament and crack loose-head prop Fabien Barcella.
In Wales, coach Warren Gatland's plans are in ruins. Loose-head prop Gethin Jenkins, tight-head Adam Jones, plus centres Tom Shanklin, Andrew Bishop and Gavin Henson will all miss some or all of the tournament.
A question mark remains over wing Shane Williams' readiness for Test rugby after a long injury lay-off, even though he returned to provincial rugby last weekend. With all those top-quality players missing, why wouldn't you call this year's Six Nations tournament devalued?
Scotland know they won't be able to choose one of their most dynamic backs. The flying Thom Evans suffered so serious a neck injury against Wales at Cardiff last year that he will never play rugby again.
The impact of a collision knocked his cervical vertebrae so far out of alignment that he was only a millimetre or so from death or permanent paralysis.
It is no wonder that doctors believe he is lucky to have made so complete a recovery from such an injury.
Another player, the Saracens prop Richard Skuse, has also been forced to quit the game due to a major neck injury.
Players of yesteryear, even those who were highly physical, are alarmed by what is happening. The great Welsh full-back of the 1970s JPR Williams, a man of medicine all his working life, said recently: "The modern game must wake up to the increasing problem of career-ending injuries. I was never averse to putting in big tackles, but the modern game has gone a big step further.
"Players train more; they are bigger, stronger and tackle harder. They play more often and at a higher intensity than ever before.
"They are being subjected to a vast increase in training by the fitness coaches, to the extent that many injuries now sustained in training are from overuse. These injuries are often career-ending. It's time for the game to wake up and take this seriously."