Wednesday 19 June 2019

Paul Kimmage: 'Parents are wondering if rugby is the right sport for their kids - what do ex-players really think?'

Rugby is in serious trouble and it won’t be saved without the input of former players who still make a living from the game. Photo: Sportsfile
Rugby is in serious trouble and it won’t be saved without the input of former players who still make a living from the game. Photo: Sportsfile
Paul Kimmage

Paul Kimmage

Munster had just beaten Gloucester at Thomond Park and the focus of the post-match analysis on Virgin Media One was the dismissal of Danny Cipriani. Joe Molloy was pitch-side with Ronan O'Gara and Shane Jennings, and as the rights and wrongs of the game's pivotal moment were tossed back and forth, the rarest thing happened.

O'Gara forgot who he was.

That can happen, obviously, when you're working in New Zealand and swapping hats and time zones regularly as an ambassador, coach, pundit, columnist and legend of the game.

Thursday? This must be Christchurch. Friday? Welcome to Paris. Saturday? That will be the Heineken Cup in Limerick.

It probably didn't help that they weren't in a studio - all that music blaring from the stands, all those fans milling around - but he had just taken the relay from Jennings with a view on Cipriani from a coach's perspective when Molloy stepped in with a gentle slap on the wrist: "You're not here as a coach, you're here as a pundit."

Tell us what you really think!

Sitting on the fence has never been O'Gara's style and in the five years since his retirement and transition from the game, he's been celebrated for his columns in the Irish Examiner and punditry on TV. Honest, acerbic and witty, he's the man who tells it straight.

So it was a surprise to find no column a year ago, when the Gerbrandt Grobler storm was raging at Munster. And it was a surprise to find a 'Ra-Ra-Munster' piece on the day his sports section led with the Brian O'Driscoll observations about painkillers. And it's a surprise he hasn't devoted at least one column to the deaths (three) in French rugby this season, because it's not like they haven't been on his mind. Or on his Twitter feed: "A lot of sadness in French rugby the last couple of months but look at the joy on these kids faces. Merci @racing92 for the development, joy, love and values you give our boys. My boy's last training session before he rejoins Canterbury."

Perhaps a gentle slap on the wrist from his editor was required: 'You're not here to appease the fans.'

Perhaps that's what transpired.

On Friday, amidst some fanfare from the paper, O'Gara broke his silence on a number of these issues in a column headlined, 'The things that excite, and concern me, about the game I love'.

The things that excite him, predictably enough, include the Munster performance against Leinster last week and the sense the dynamic has changed between the teams. The things that concern him are . . . sorry, you'll have to forgive me, I'm still trying to figure that out.

There's an obscure reference to Grobler and a feeble slap ("If we are talking about growth hormone or anabolic steroids, you simply can't get into a second-chance debate with that sort of conscious decision making.") but no criticism or questions of the Munster hierarchy's role.

A confessed steroids abuser had been playing for the province. How had it happened? Who had signed off on it? Had anyone told Joe Schmidt or Philip Browne? What had happened to the IRFU's zero tolerance on doping? What message did it send to the Munster academy?

Questions O'Gara did not address.

The O'Driscoll revelations on anti-inflammatories and painkillers seemed more of a concern: "It triggered a fevered reaction about the use of such medication," O'Gara says, "and it wasn't long before the conversation meandered into the realm of whether rugby was 'dirty' or not."

Perish the thought.

There is no mention of the recent deaths in France, and no attempt to address the issues raised by Laurent Benezech - a fellow Racing alumnus - about the growing medicalisation of performance in the sport. But he did have some concerns:

"My eldest son Rua is 10 now. His first love is soccer and whether I want him to be a rugby player in the future is something I think a lot about.

"There is a huge responsibility with the educators and the coaches to shape the game and create a vision for future generations. Rugby is changing so dramatically but if the future of the game is a pack of behemoths stalking the playing fields and boshing their way to superiority, then I don't know if there's a place for Rua. But if you are going to have a skill-based, decision-making game, then I'd have every interest in him being a rugby player."

It was wishy-washy pap.

There's been a lot of excellent commentary about the perils facing the game from the top rugby writers over the last few weeks:

David Walsh in The Sunday Times: "The physicality and fearlessness of those who inflict and endure it is part of rugby's attraction. Sometimes, in the open field, a centre makes a great defensive read, sees a pass a second before it is released and then arrives like a juggernaut smashing into the receiver. More and more, though, it is becoming a guilty pleasure.

"Admiration for a perfectly executed but brutally destructive hit is now tempered by the fear that rugby is getting too violent for its own good. How could you not feel sadness for the family of the Stade Francais academy player, Nicolas Chauvin, who died on Wednesday after a tackle playing for his club's youth side against Bordeaux-Begles last Sunday? In making a tackle Chauvin suffered a broken neck, which led to cardiac arrest. He was 19."

Mark Reason on 'Stuff' in New Zealand: "Ca suffit. That's enough. Three young Frenchmen have died on the rugby pitch in the past eight months. World Rugby has their blood on its hands. For ten years the governing body of rugby has sat on their hands and failed to make the changes that many of us have been pleading for. J'Accuse."

Robert Kitson in the Guardian: "Eye-gouging, biting, simulation, bullying allegations, nightclub misconduct . . . any pretentions to the moral high ground to which rugby used to cling have long since been eroded. This matters for one fundamental reason: if rugby ceases to be regarded, even by those who love it, as a character-building, mood-enhancing and cherishable team sport for all, it becomes even harder to justify the lengthy queues of battered players in A&E."

Ruaidhri O'Connor in the Irish Independent: "For the teenagers hopeful of making it in the professional ranks, the message is clear: get bigger, get faster, get stronger, get better. It is up to rugby to ponder where that message will lead. Ultimately it will be the parents who decide the game's fate. Rugby has never been more popular in this country and the IRFU have aggressive targets to try and grow the game amongst boys and girls . . .

"But when Irish parents look across to France and see young men dying on the pitch, when they read about the catastrophic injuries being suffered by professional players and hear from current pros about the stark reality of the cold world they exist in, they will wonder if this career is the right one for their children."

But little from those who have played the game.

For O'Gara, and many others, rugby is still a living, and some truths won't help pay the bills, but the game is in serious trouble and it won't be saved without them. Do they truly love rugby? Is the game worth fighting for? Do they want their kids to play?

Tell us what you really think.

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