Saturday 3 December 2016

Tony Ward: Sheer brutality of battle with French typical of a sport that has lost its way

Published 20/02/2016 | 02:30

Jonathan Sexton, Ireland, receives treatment from team doctor Dr. Jim McShane, left, and team physio James Allen. Photo: Sportsfile
Jonathan Sexton, Ireland, receives treatment from team doctor Dr. Jim McShane, left, and team physio James Allen. Photo: Sportsfile

I got soaked in the Stade de France and while I didn't enjoy the game and very seldom do at this level any more, the one mitigating factor contributing towards the poor fare was the weather.

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The rain was incessant and made fingertip handling impossible. On the back of that we got the bish-bash war of attrition that we expected.

Nothing strange in that but what I do find disconcerting - and maybe I'm alone here - is the shock horror reaction to another France/Ireland slugfest.

Last year in the corresponding match in Dublin we witnessed a much more brutal 80 minutes of nastiness and mind-numbing physicality. But we won and that covered a multitude. There was widespread acceptance that the end justified the means.

I came away from Lansdowne Road that day depressed and I put my thoughts and my fears for the future of the game here on these pages in the days and weeks that followed.

Screening

Rob Kearney lined out at full-back in both of those games and over the last few days, when launching Leinster Rugby's new concussion screening initiative (a statement in itself) for amateur players in association with Laya Healthcare, he made the following observations: "Unfortunately, I think that's the way the game is going, there's more emphasis on the collision and getting over the gain line. That's the type of sport it (now) is and to do that players are getting bigger and stronger and it seems it's only going one way."

Given it is the Ireland full-back's means to his daily bread he had to hold back somewhat. "It's unfair to say rugby is unsustainable," he said, "but it is a worry and an issue."

So let me say it for him. It is not unfair to say that rugby is unsustainable in its current guise.

The issue for Rugby Union is a very practical one - professional players getting bigger, fitter, faster, stronger while the playing pitch remains the same as it ever was.

There is precious little space on a rugby field any more; hence the Australian Rules jibe from Eddie Jones regarding Ireland's tactics in recent times.

Bear in mind that when rugby began, supposedly with William Webb Ellis picking up the ball and running in 1823, the early game when the first rules were written in 1845 consisted of 20-a-side. That was reduced to 15-a-side in 1877. Almost 20 years later in 1895 a schism in the running game saw the breakaway Northern Rugby Football Union (Rugby League) formed. In 1897, the lineout was abolished and in 1898 professionalism introduced.

In 1906, in the quest for a more free-running, entertaining product, the Northern Union (set to become the Rugby Football League in 1922) changed its rules reducing teams from 15- to 13-a-side and replacing the ruck after every tackle with the play the ball essentially as it still exists today.

League saw the writing on the wall as newly-fledged professionals were getting bigger and stronger and space was disappearing rapidly. The choice was simple: either increase pitch size or reduce numbers. For practical reasons they chose the latter and so wing-forwards disappeared from Rugby League. Having been brought up on the 15-player code, I would hate to see that happening but this is not the same game as even the early professionals played.

State-of-the-art stadia are in place around the world so increasing playing size is not an option save for Australia (Aussie Rules pitches) maybe. The alternative - and I no more want this than anybody in the IRFU, SANZAAR, World Rugby or any governing body - is in reducing numbers but if anybody out there has an alternative solution I would dearly love to hear it.

So when fellow columnist George Hook suggests his mind wandering to "a time a long way in the future when a relic of a stadium overrun with weeds in Lansdowne Road is a stop on the tourist trail where the guide remarks, it is hard to believe, but young men used to beat each other up for the edification of a baying crowd", I share that melodramatic view.

And no it is not the exaggerated ramblings of disorientated old men. Rugby Union, as currently constituted, has a major problem and, as alluded to by Rob Kearney who is at the front line of this excuse for football, "it's the way the game is going".

Mark my words now and watch the impact and by extension interest there is going to be in Sevens Rugby post Rio 2016.

And for those unfamiliar with the game at underage level where clearly there is no pay-for-play, the same awful principles of attacking bodies and bashing over the gainline to establish forward momentum apply.

As we are already seeing in the southern hemisphere where more user-friendly playing conditions exist in the Super Rugby or Rugby Championship, empty seats are conspicuous through the growing absence of paying punters.

I deal at first hand with parents in the underage game here and I can tell you the fear in having their sons or daughters take up the game is growing exponentially.

Here is an extract from a letter I received from a hugely committed rugby man and former coach and mentor in my old school St Mary's where I learnt the game's rudiments from U-9s up.

Fr John Flavin did not coach me as he was after my time but I know the influence and impact he had on Denis Hickie, Shane Jennings, Johnny Sexton and others of that ilk. Fr Flavin is passionate about his rugby but utterly honest in his assessment. Bear in mind these comments were made to me in 2006 almost a decade ago, give or take a few weeks...

"It is the product, not the packaging that is wrong. Rugby as now played by professionals and imitated poorly by amateurs and school-age players is so physical and defensive oriented that the game in my opinion is beginning to implode and is losing the support of parents and amateur players especially. I have seen so many fine schools players quit the game so early upon leaving school, but never more so than in recent years - academies and foundations not withstanding!

Irrelevant

"So many injuries to young bodies that cannot cope with the big hits of the modern schools game - despite all the gym work being done even by the schoolboys. Witness the success and popularity of tag rugby where the skills element is vital and the strength element is irrelevant. Many other games and leisure activities - and not only soccer - are beginning to take rugby's place.

"Rugby is beginning to lose the support of parents and schoolchildren and will be a game for the young adult only - in decreasing numbers. It was once a game for all shapes and sizes; now it is only for younger and younger adult players, very well endowed physically, who spend 75pc of their training time in fitness/conditioning centres and less and less time on the field learning the skills of the game.

"If professionalism is now a given, the best thing that could happen to save rugby is to change the laws, or at very least differentiate between the laws of professional and amateur rugby.

"There is not enough room on a rugby pitch at present for 15 players as the laws stand and as the game is played. I have loved playing and coaching rugby for over 60 years but I cannot see parents continuing to buy into rugby for their children if present trends continue. The number of injuries is unacceptable."

I repeat that it was a decade ago when Fr Flavin penned those thoughts. It was prior to concussion becoming the major issue it now is.

I have just come across a piece entitled '6N 2016 who is the most effective at the breakdown?' With hand on heart, who cares?

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