Sport Rugby

Saturday 3 December 2016

We can't keep turning other cheek to off-the-ball cheap shots

Conor O'Shea

Published 21/02/2016 | 17:00

Ireland's Mike McCarthy reacts as he is carried on a stretcher from the field after being injured during a Six Nations tournament match Photo: Reuters
Ireland's Mike McCarthy reacts as he is carried on a stretcher from the field after being injured during a Six Nations tournament match Photo: Reuters

Not a week goes by without reading a story about injury or concussion and someone telling us how the game we play is more confrontational and more physical than ever before. It doesn't take much for someone to be rolled out to tell us that parents will not want to see their kids play the game because of the concerns they have.

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I am not going to say that the physical nature of the game does not make me shudder but I don't think a huge amount has changed down the years: rugby has always been a physical game, a game where you put your body on the line for your team-mates.

What has changed, though, is our awareness and knowledge of the outcome of some of the injuries which players suffer, and with that knowledge comes added responsibility to look after players at all levels.

Back in my playing days I used to look at players from previous generations and say to myself, I hope I don't end up in later life needing knee and hip replacements from the lack of medical attention they had received, but I was fortunate to play in an era when we were incredibly well looked after. Still, now 16 years on from my last game, I meet some of my peers who suffer the hangover from the injuries they battled through to play: it is what you did to achieve. To be fair, there is not a sportsperson in the world that does not push themselves either mentally or physically to the limits to achieve their goals. You sacrifice to achieve and you wouldn't want it any other way: it is why we are drawn to the warrior nature of so many sports.

I had over 10 operations on various parts of my body, but they were the surface injuries; there were the hidden injuries too. I was fascinated to hear Joe Schmidt talk in his post-match interview last week about the injury updates on Dave Kearney and Johnny Sexton but he also mentioned that there were injuries we didn't see and he would wait for updates on them too. There is a fine line when you are coaching after a match, especially when you lose: if you say certain things you can be accused of deflecting from the real reasons you lost the match and you need to focus on areas that you control.

I thought Schmidt was incredibly measured after the France game despite his frustration, but his irritation regarding some of the hits on and off the ball clearly grated, and I think World Rugby need to look at what happened more carefully. The hit that troubled me most was Yoann Maestri's on Sexton, not because it was on Johnny but it was the fact that it has been allowed happen without sanction.

Remember Pascal Pape's knee into the back of Jamie Heaslip last year and the resultant 10-week ban he received? The bottom line is that if Heaslip had not been injured as a result of the knee, the sanction probably would have been the yellow card and no escalation. The citing and judgement in so many cases is determined by the injury and that cannot be the case if we are to protect players; we are almost waiting for the accident to happen before clamping down.

There is a huge difference between a cheap shot and an overly physical challenge, and everyone in the sport knows that difference. I feel for Dave Kearney, but there was no malice in the tackle that Guilhem Guirado hit him with. Still, it deserved a sanction.

Maestri's challenge is different; it was not an horrendous challenge, but like Pape's last year it was outside the boundaries of the game. In the old days it would be laughed at as just a big second row being an old-fashioned enforcer; now it should just be unacceptable, and until we see this type of challenge sanctioned we will not change that behaviour in players.

There are enough issues we have to resolve in the game now and it is physical enough without players taking things into their own hands; if we are talking about protecting players and promoting the game, World Rugby need to change their view on these off-the-ball incidents and clamp down on them all; injury should not be the driver of the process; the incident, whatever the outcome, should be sanctioned. If that happens, then you will change player behaviour very quickly.

I know there will be a defensive reaction and someone will come out to say that it is not an outcome-driven process, but the truth is different and it needs to change. The game is physical enough as it is.

Sunday Indo Sport

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