Sunday 22 September 2019

Rúaidhrí O'Connor: 'When parents see young men dying on the pitch, they will wonder if rugby is right for their children'

Players and officials from Leinster and Bath observe a minute’s silence in honour of Stade Francais’ Nicolas Chauvin, who passed away earlier this month. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Players and officials from Leinster and Bath observe a minute’s silence in honour of Stade Francais’ Nicolas Chauvin, who passed away earlier this month. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

It was in transition year circa 1999 when the boys of Cross and Passion College, Kilcullen were sitting in the 'masculine studies' class and were tasked with writing down a list of the jobs they'd like to do when they finished secondary school.

One of our number, the largest gentleman in the room and the tighthead prop on the local team, wrote down 'professional rugby player' 10 times and handed it up.

The teacher wasn't impressed, but his team-mates in the class-room were wondering why they hadn't thought of it. Sure what else would you want to do?

In the end, our hero didn't play much beyond school and last we heard he was a roadie on various rock and roll tours. So things didn't work out so bad for him.

If you were to go to any number of schools in Ireland these days and ask the same question it is likely there will be plenty who would put down the same answer.

Routinely, professional rugby players refer to the fact that they are living the dream. Making the grade brings rewards, although those rewards are not on a par with the riches on offer in rival codes.

Still, they exist in a professional bubble and are given every opportunity to enjoy glorious days in the sun.

Ask the 23 players involved in Ireland's win over New Zealand and they'll tell you they wouldn't swap their gig for anything.

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Two weeks ago, however, the dark under-belly of professional rugby was exposed to the world as the behemoths who bestride the stadiums of Europe paused for a moment to remember Stade Francais youngster Nicolas Chauvin.

Just 19, the forward broke his neck in a tackle and died days later having gone into cardiac arrest as a result of the injury.

His was the third premature death in French rugby this season and one wondered what the players saw as they peered up at the screen and saw the smiling face on the pink-clad shoulders beaming back at them.

We'll never know if Chauvin would have made his name in the game he loved, but now his presence hangs over a sport that looks in rude health when the bright lights are shining.

When that light reaches into the far corners of the game, however, things don't look so healthy. Of course, once the referees blew their whistles normal business resumed.

In Castres, both sets of players chose to mark the moment in the huddle and afterwards got stuck into a match that resembled something from the wild west of the amateur era.

Unlike those days, the current players have spent most of their lives on gym programmes and in a system where only the biggest and best survive, so when they lose control of themselves, the stakes are higher.

Most of the Castres carry-on was pantomime stuff and the worst of it was dealt with by the disciplinary process, but there was something jarring about watching wanton violence on the back of the minute's silence.

That weekend, the Leicester and England loosehead prop Ellis Genge gave a series of searing interviews that shone a light into the life of a professional rugby player on the books of a Premiership club.

"I came here on an academy contract for peanuts. Now I've got enough for the odd Gucci cap but there's f*** all money in rugby. I'm 23, I've got zero cartilage, my shoulder has been ripped off the bone and I'm renting out this flat," he told a British newspaper. "The guy who lived here before me, (former Ireland international) Dom Ryan retired at 28 because his brain was fried (he retired because of concussion) and he had nothing to fall back on. Who knows what I'll do?"

Genge outlined his other injuries and spoke of his use of painkillers, a topic Brian O'Driscoll opened up on recently.

His comments caused quite a stir and plenty of disquiet among former team-mates, but the former Ireland captain did the game a service by going public.

His comments came on the back of a survey of professionals which exposed a growing dissatisfaction amongst players.

Given what we watch on a weekly basis is there any surprise that the players who play upwards of 25 brutal matches a season are in need of assistance when they get into their late 20s?

The sport demands that players get bigger, faster and stronger if they want to make it.

On a recent tour of the small but impressive mini-hospital ward beneath the West Stand at the Aviva Stadium it was striking to note the sheer number of medical specialists working across the numerous disciplines needed to attend what remains a game.

It is universally accepted that size matters in rugby.

On 'Off the Ball', journalist Alan English recently recounted how Munster had cut loose a friend of his son's in favour of importing 18-and-a-half-stone South African tighthead prop Keynan Knox (below) straight from school a year ago.

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Darrren O’Shea gets to grips with Keynan Knox during squad training. Picture: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

Knox is already a regular in the province's 'A' team and it won't be long before he plays for the first team. In 2021 he'll qualify to play for Ireland and few would bet against him doing just that.

Recruiting young players from abroad is standard practice in football but less common in rugby.

In many ways it is smart business from Munster who have potentially nabbed a Springbok from the South African system and it offered Knox a chance to make a good living.

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 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.

They will point to the values of the game, the team ethics and character-building nature of it all. Governing bodies will point to their work on lowering the tackle height.

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.

In the United States, the sheen of the NFL is beginning to fade. Heightened awareness about concussion has contributed to declining player participation. Players and their parents are voting with their feet, professional players are opting to retire earlier and earlier. As Ireland go into 2019 in World Cup contention, it is hard to deny the attraction for young men who dream of wearing the green jersey at the Aviva Stadium or for young women who fancy a crack at the Tokyo Olympics.

But for the game's custodians, there must be serious questions about the safety of the young people playing it.

Accidents have always happened and some will dismiss the response to Chauvin's death as reactionary, but everything that can be done to make the sport safer should be. That conversation is well under way.

No one should die chasing their dream job or playing the sport they love.

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