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Make the game safer or parents won't let their children play it


The Connacht Rugby club and community department have been running women's World Cup national schools blitzes across the province this month. Stock picture: Getty Images

The Connacht Rugby club and community department have been running women's World Cup national schools blitzes across the province this month. Stock picture: Getty Images

The Connacht Rugby club and community department have been running women's World Cup national schools blitzes across the province this month. Stock picture: Getty Images

The lull in the rugby news cycle was dramatically filled last Wednesday by the publication of an open letter signed by 70 "sports scholars, academics, doctors and public health professionals, who have become increasingly concerned about the harms and risks of injuries to children playing schools rugby", calling for the removal "of the collision elements of the school game so that children play touch and non-contact rugby".

Cue reaction, and the inevitable over-reaction. Most reasonable people would agree that full-contact rugby in its traditional form is an inappropriate component of a compulsory physical education curriculum. Indeed, I'd suggest that most would be surprised to hear the sport is compulsory in some schools. Agreement on other issues raised in the letter will be more problematic.

The sport's evolution is now a constant topic of debate, and the ever-increasing physicality, at all levels, is of concern.

The game has become dominated by physical collisions and the injuries arising as a consequence. Perception is everything, and the general perception is that both the rate and the severity of injuries have increased dramatically.

Hits, as opposed to tackles, continue to increase in force, and the image of players, several of them, being helped from the pitch is all too familiar. Willie John McBride led his unbeaten 1974 Lions to a series victory in South Africa, using only 17 players in four Tests on successive weekends at the end of a 30-match, 15-week tour. The extent of change has been such that this statistic could be from another planet. It's certainly from a different game.

With weekly medical bulletins now a matter of routine, players, parents and the wider rugby public are all too well-versed in the terminology and implications of injuries. Concussion has become the number one issue. No matter how well and often the game's proponents assert the sport's inculcation of values such as courage, discipline and teamwork, the reality is that parents have begun holding their children back from participating due to safety concerns, primarily concussion-related.

As much as those operating at the higher levels of administration may forget at times, the sport at elite level remains entirely dependent on the throughput of talent from the grassroots, with a thriving club scene a necessity. That foundation is already struggling and any further decrease in participation rates could have drastic implications.

It's something of a paradox that the shop window for prospective participants, and their parents, is a professional game which, undoubtedly, bears little resemblance to the sport as played across the country and around the world every week. Success in this shop window over the past 15 years has been the catalyst for a veritable explosion in playing numbers at minis and youths level across this island, and happenings at that elite level rapidly permeate through to the game's foundations.

While nobody likes to crib about a referee - or citing commissioner - in the aftermath of a loss, we've found ourselves too frequently discussing officiating of late, arising directly from events in Stade de France and Twickenham. The World Cup frustrated many as a sharp increase in the frequency of TMO interventions and perceived soft penalties signalled the intent of World Rugby to present a squeaky-clean image and TV product, with a view to the further growth of the sport's global audience.

What we've seen in Ireland's recent games, with Guilhem Guirado, Yoann Maestri and Mike Brown each escaping sanction, makes it appear that the authorities' autumn initiative has been abandoned.

I'm not arguing for a sanitising of the sport, but reckless play, intentional or otherwise, must be punished. Dave Kearney's tournament was ended, and while some would press the case that Mike Brown's attempts to play the ball in that Twickenham ruck were legal, reckless use of the boot at the breakdown shouldn't be tolerated. We've become acquainted with the duty of care to the player in possession, in the tackle or in the air; similar protection is equally essential for defenceless players prone on the ground.

As the game gets more and more about collisions, its fundamental skill of creating space into which players can attack with ball in hand has sadly become something of a rarity. Action is required to create more space on the field of play. Experimenting with 13-a-side, a suggestion not without merit, has been mooted by some, while others favour a stricter policing of the offside line, one of the game's fundamental tenets. Changing the laws without addressing the standard of officiating and ultimately the protection of players would, however, be a mistake.

I've argued on a number of occasions that the game, at every level, is at a crossroads. Ownership at professional level and participation at the grassroots are well-established challenges; officiating and the protection of players must now be added to the list.

Just how those in power, similar to the Irish political classes at present, navigate onwards from this junction will have long-term implications for the sport's future.

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