Sport Rugby

Thursday 26 April 2018

Jim Glennon: Unsustainable injury toll leaves rugby at a crossroads as hits keep getting harder

Ireland's Tommy Bowe
Ireland's Tommy Bowe

Jim Glennon

The only surprise in yesterday's World Cup final pairing was that we had to wait until the competition's eighth renewal for their great rivalry to be played out on the biggest stage of all.

But from an Irish perspective, while there's admiration and enjoyment in watching the best on the planet fighting it out for the game's ultimate prize, it's laced with a sense of disconnect from a project in which we were so heavily invested for so long.

Although the tournament only concluded yesterday, the post-mortem is already closed for many on this side of the water. Well versed as we now are in the circumstances of our exit and also of our current standing in the global game, we should now be asking just where that game as a whole stands and what challenges face World Rugby and its unions.

Awarding Rugby World Cup 2019 to Japan was a courageous step, but one which will guarantee reaching a broader audience and, naturally, additional commercial opportunities and revenues.

But the nature of the game at that time will be crucial. Will its increased exposure have been converted into increased participation levels that are in any way reflective of the uplift in viewing figures? I have my doubts. An abiding memory of this World Cup has been its physicality and the number and scale of injuries, which is now an unarguable fact of rugby life.

The only bad luck involved with injury is around the identity of the victim; rising attrition rates are a constant, only the identity of the victim varies. It's said that the only certainties of life are death and taxes; the only certainties of a game of rugby are the ball and physical attrition.

The debate over the structure of the tournament and the lack of recovery time afforded to players (particularly those from tier two countries) is a secondary issue in the context of the brutal physicality on display; for me, the severity of the collisions raises serious questions over the long-term sustainability of the sport in its current guise.

Midweek medical briefings are now the norm, and Ulster's release last week was particularly stark: Tommy Bowe, Iain Henderson and Jared Payne all required surgery, with recovery periods estimated at up to six months. At least they will return - there's no such luck for Munster's Felix Jones, a model professional by all accounts, whose enforced retirement completed a bad week on the injury front. Against this backdrop of severe physical combat at the upper echelons of the game, one can't but be concerned for its future at grassroots level. It would be complacent to presume a constant supply of goodwill from parents, particularly in the face of much safer alternatives.

The gladiatorial confrontation of finely-tuned athletes, with physical violence at its core, has always played to man's primal instincts, and the capacity for physical dominance over an opponent has always been one of rugby's key features. While a major shift away from this principle of the game is impractical, there have been some encouraging developments in other facets of the sport.

If the once pre-eminent skills of taking and giving a pass at speed, exploiting space and kicking accurately have declined in relative importance, the tournament's best, in demonstrating the importance of physicality, also showed that a superior ability to perform these basic skills under pressure remains a key differentiator.

It's unclear whether the injury rate can be realistically addressed, but a renewed focus on skill development can only be a positive.

The sport is at a crossroads. The tournament has grown and expanded the market for the televised product to unprecedented levels; on the other hand, maintaining, let alone developing, the interest and loyalty of core participants and volunteers at amateur levels is another challenge entirely, and one in need of urgent attention.

It is essential that whatever changes are introduced are sustainable for all stakeholders involved, amateur and professional alike, and managing the process of maximising commercial opportunities while protecting the game's core constituency will be a major challenge for the game's authorities.

Just how that challenge is addressed before Japan in four years will have long-term implications on how the game is played, and consumed, for decades to come.

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