Sunday 22 September 2019

George Hook: How I lost my love of rugby

I will now only watch a game of rugby if I'm paid to do so, says the former television rugby pundit, who no longer enjoys the sport

George Hook only watches rugby now if he is paid to do so.
George Hook only watches rugby now if he is paid to do so.

George Hook

I watched legalised assault being perpetrated by young men on each other in the name of sport as Ireland played France in the Rugby World Cup.

The following Monday, World Rugby, with great fanfare, held the seventh World Rugby Medical Commission Conference to tackle injury prevention.

In the preamble, they announced that injury rates in elite rugby had not increased since 2002, and research and prevention strategies contributed to a reduction in the most severe injuries. World Rugby's commission "continues to focus on strategies that can further aid injury prevention".

If I had not watched the carnage in Cardiff on the Sunday, I could almost have believed the platitudes about player welfare. For me, rugby is now borderline sport. It is 80pc bludgeon and 20pc rapier. Young men and women are being asked to put their future well-being at risk in suffering collisions that increasingly resemble car crashes.

I watched the France game in a packed sports bar on Harcourt Street. The atmosphere was magnificent with cheering, singing and wonderful enthusiasm. I found I could not share it. My thoughts were with the players on stretchers. I wondered if the excited young people saw any connection between themselves and the hordes that thronged the Colosseum of Nero's Rome to watch the gladiatorial combat. Was it just me, or was the only difference that the combatants did not line up in front of the head of World Rugby and recite, "We who are about to die, salute you?"

We in the media are not without blame in glorifying the physicality rather than the beauty of the game. Reports that talk of players "smashing opponents" or "going hunting" create an impression that the aim is to hurt or maim. Meanwhile, television revels in replaying the biggest hits.

World Rugby went on to trumpet the introduction of pitch-side and medical-room video-review technology for head-injury identification and assessment. Great news for the 31 players in the international squads, but of absolutely no relevance for the amateur players, and, more importantly, the children who play every weekend.

The concussion debate has skewed the argument about the long-term consequences of rugby as currently played. Doctors are now seeing injuries to schoolboys that were unknown over a decade ago. Youngsters are bulking up as never before, and using supplements and weight training to speed up the natural growth process. Recently, the front row of the winning New Zealand high-school team was bigger than that of the All Blacks.

The problem is, the game that is played by professionals is the same as the one played by inexperienced 12-year-olds. The tackles are head-on; the body position at the ruck is weak and invites injury; and the game is run by volunteers, without medical assistance on the touchline.

Volunteerism is the life-blood of sport for children. We cannot expect well-meaning parents who may never have played rugby and/or have rudimentary coaching skills to supervise the game. This year, we have seen the first woman, Sarah Chesters, die from brain trauma in rugby. The death of 14-year-old Ben Robinson in Ulster was a wake-up call to the schools' game. One suspects that it may take a major legal case to concentrate the minds of rugby administrators.

The former surgeon to the Welsh Rugby Union sees injuries in rugby as unsustainable. Incredibly, he fears for the future of Welsh centre Jamie Roberts, who is still active in the game.

The physics are inescapable. We can make the players bigger, stronger and faster, but we cannot make the bones, ligaments and tendons better able to sustain the increased impact. The formula is momentum equals mass times speed. Calculate yourself. Fifteen miles an hour (speed) multiplied by 280lbs (mass). Over 15 tons of force!

That is why I no longer watch rugby for pleasure. Now it is a job for which I have no appetite. I will only watch if I am paid to do so. Parents need to ask themselves the same questions.

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