Monday 23 April 2018

Jim Glennon: Ruling bodies must get tough and stamp out violence

George North injuries highlight a need to reassess laws of game

George North of Wales in action
George North of Wales in action

Jim Glennon

Two rounds into Ireland's championship defence and it's business as usual for Joe Schmidt's team with two wins and all minds turned to the visit of Stuart Lancaster's England next Sunday for what will probably be our biggest test this season.

I've long admired Lancaster for the manner in which he carries himself, how he extracts performances from his team while still developing his squad, and his general sense of humility and perspective - in so many ways similar to Schmidt. Next Sunday we'll not only see two high-quality teams going head to head, we'll also observe a battle of wits between two really good coaches.

With Ireland flying high and in a relatively good position in terms of injury, it's regrettable that the same can't be said of the tournament itself - most observers of the opening rounds have been enveloped in a cloud of unprecedented unease.

The match of the tournament thus far was the Wales/England opener - two evenly-matched teams in a highly-charged atmosphere. The memory of a great occasion has been marred however by the head injuries sustained by George North. After the first - an accidental kick to the head sustained on going to ground to retrieve a loose ball - he was removed temporarily from the pitch for a 'head injury assessment' (HIA). To the naked eye, the uglier second incident, where he appeared to be knocked unconscious in attempting to make a tackle, was exacerbated by the inexplicable decision of his medical team to allow him continue on the field of play. Since then, and by no means coincidentally, there have been numerous instances of players being removed from pitches to undergo HIAs, with some returning to the fray and others observing the 'return to play' protocols in the days following.

While it may be argued that the removal of these players indicates a heightened appreciation of the dangers and gravity of the situation, it can't be denied that the increasing occurrence of concussion is itself a symptom of the long-standing trend towards more intense levels of physicality which can, and all too often should, be simply described more accurately as violence.

Since the advent of professionalism 20 years ago, the game has continuously and rapidly evolved; for example, it wouldn't take a qualified data analyst to deduce that the game is now collision-based to a much greater degree than it was in 1995, or even in 2005. Latterly too, trends have emerged that the team that kicks more, and more effectively (and in recent Six Nations this is Ireland), tends to win, and also that the number of tackles is at an all-time high.

What this, at its most basic, is telling us is that teams are going through multi-phase plays where patterns are combative and attritional, in advance of a kick being made, very often with the objective of an inherently high-risk aerial contest with an opponent for the chasing winger. I've always advocated the view that one plays to one's strengths to win the game; whether through a territory-based 'ten-man' strategy or an expansive offensive-based one, is immaterial. These recent trends however are true of most top-level teams, in the northern hemisphere anyway, and have led to a rather dull spectacle in many cases - another contributory factor to the cloud around this year's tournament.

Much has been made also of the ferocity of many of the physical confrontations this season and, regrettably, 'violence' is often the more appropriate term here. The dangers inherent in players hurtling into rucks with arms deliberately (and illegally) tucked in to implement the current take on the 'clear-out' make for uncomfortable viewing, but are nonetheless clearly evident at a majority of rucks. If the evidence of the French game is anything to go by, the traditional 'hand-off' appears to be in the process of being replaced by a forearm 'strike', or even by a leading with the head, on the part of some of the protagonists.

The increasing levels of violence within the game are a real issue, even more so when accompanied by weak officiating. When instances occur, they simply must be stamped out. We've seen infringements in different areas of the game becoming engrained and accepted as quasi-legal techniques or strategies - the potential consequences of a repetition with some of the current developments require little elaboration. World Rugby/IRB has form in recent years of rule-tweaking with a view to countering certain evolving aspects of the game and I have no doubt that this process is ongoing.

Urgent action is, however, required particularly in the areas to which I refer - concussion, and the increasing levels of violence. If participation levels at the grassroots are to be maintained, something must change. Rugby has no entitlement to be spared the crisis of dwindling numbers currently afflicting American football; complacency, a quality not unknown among our game's ruling bodies, is the enemy. Meaningful action is required, and the situation is urgent.

Sunday Indo Sport

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