Thursday 12 December 2019

Playing a very dangerous game

Rugby's physicality is spiralling out of control to the extent where it needs urgent attention

Dave Kearney lies injured on the pitch at the Stade de France last Saturday Photo: Reuters
Dave Kearney lies injured on the pitch at the Stade de France last Saturday Photo: Reuters
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

With player welfare at the heart of the process, a number of minor amendments will come into effect in 2016

That was the opening line in a World Rugby press release at the start of the season. The minor law amendments will have passed most people by, for they are just that. The law trials will have grabbed some more attention, but they were hardly box office and will only generate more air-play if they have a clear and positive impact on how the game is being played. Neither area is designed, however, to have a fundamental impact on our game. And we are now at a stage where radical change is needed to point rugby in a positive direction.

If you talk to marketing people then they will produce figures that suggest things have never been better. The recent World Cup was the biggest, and best, of the eight tournaments to date. The domestic leagues of England and France are now commanding the sort of television contracts that were once the sole preserve of football. And the BBC, who may be running out of sports to broadcast, can at least point to healthy figures for what remains of their Six Nations coverage. The peak of 6.7 million viewers who tuned in to the Wales versus Scotland game in Cardiff last weekend was the highest in the history of the fixture.

World Rugby, too, will provide stats to support their contention that while many perceive rugby to be a sport out of control in its ability to protect those who play it, their figures tell a different story. It is unfair to characterise the game's ruling body as the sporting equivalent of the tobacco industry, but neither are they entirely independent on the issue of rugby's future.

That future is being driven by players who are bigger, faster and stronger than any of their predecessors, playing on a pitch whose dimensions remain the same, and under a set of laws that need revision. World Rugby tell us that the changes in height and weight of players in 2014 compared to those from 2002 is marginal. Yet over almost the same period a study of 453 South African under 20 players (Lombard, Durandt, Masimla, Green & Lambert, 2014) showed significant rise in muscular strength, body mass and muscular endurance.

World Rugby also contend that the injury rate among elite players in the same time frame show a little-changed average; and that World Cup injury rates follow a similar trend: figures released next month will show that 30 players were withdrawn injured from games in 2015, the exact same figure as 2007.

Moreover, World Rugby point to Australian hospital admission data from 2013/14 that puts juvenile and junior rugby behind cycling, equestrian sports, motor sport, roller sports and Aussie rules. Maybe Australian rugby players are phobic about hospitals (Dublin's Temple Street don't keep such stats) but either way, it's hardly a clinical study. And if you are involved at the sharp end of rugby then you might have a different impression.

In September 2014, Dr Hannan Mullett, whose days are filled with a variety of banjaxed shoulders, said: "When I was preparing a talk recently looking at the injuries in rugby the (English) RFU were saying that they haven't recorded an increase in the number of injuries, but anecdotally I seem to see more and more of them."

And what Dr Mullett was seeing was, he reckoned, frequently related to the practice of clearing out players at the breakdown - players who were extended over the ball and asking to be smashed. Concussion isn't his thing, but given the mechanics of what's happening in this part of the game it opens the door to bells being rung.

In this parish we have an involvement with a club under 20 side, where we have recorded seven concussions this season. Two of them didn't occur on our watch, rather in college games, but the players concerned were in no doubt they had been dinged. When the trend started we actively began to limit the amount of physical contact in training. It hasn't gone away.

If you were in World Rugby you might infer from this how robust the reporting function has become. Certainly there has been a sea change in the awareness of rugby's greatest scourge, but there are wildly differing opinions on the usefulness of the Head Injury Assessment protocol. What is inescapable, regardless of where you stand on that issue, is that it's not a clinical exercise.

Moreover, improving the reporting of concussion does nothing to reduce its frequency. Making progress on that front is not possible without tampering with the fabric of the game. So be it.

You may, however, consider that this is not necessary, that rugby's brutality is largely the result of its tactics rather than its laws. And for this you could get useful ammunition from Super Saturday.

Sadly the excellence of the finale to last season's Six Nations Championship may become a unique event. It was driven exclusively by the need for the three teams in contention going to the last - Wales, Ireland and England, in that order - not just to win, but to win big. And it was facilitated by glorious weather. So all concerned went out and created space like capitalists create wealth. And they exploited it brilliantly. It was stunning to watch. And when it was over you feared we wouldn't be seeing it again in circumstances other than those.

You'd be naïve to think you can always play like that - sometimes defences will make that approach irresponsible - but you'd be deluding yourself that the amount of time spent attacking bodies rather than space is time well spent, even if you're physically built for it. It's also more likely to lead to injury.

So do we shift the goalposts or try to change the mindset of the coaches? Because we're talking about health and safety here, and ultimately the saleability of the game itself, then it's a matter of law. And not just rugby's laws, but those of the land. The ones that ultimately are keeping those in World Rugby awake at night.

An article last year by barrister Joanne Kirby in the Entertainment and Sports Law Journal put this into perspective. "Health and Safety legislation in the UK and Ireland is similar in expression and effect," she wrote. "It sets out the duty of employers to ensure - so far as is reasonably practicable - that their work systems protect the health, safety and welfare of all their employees."

Rugby is clearly a dangerous game, but that doesn't obviate the obligation on employers, clubs and union, to carry out a risk assessment of what's involved, and to act accordingly.

"Major League Baseball (MLB) is an example of a professional sport that has acknowledged the risks inherent in its work systems and adapted their systems to protect their players," Kirby says. "The MLB clubs compile statistics ( on the number of pitches per player in any given game. Prior to 2001, games of 120 and over pitches were far more common. Now it is unusual for a pitcher to pitch more than 100 times in one game, before they are withdrawn and replaced by a reliever. By compiling relevant information, identifying risks and taking preventative measures, teams have acknowledged the need to protect the health of the pitchers rather than over-extend them and risk burnout."

Can our provinces, or the IRFU, say their risk assessment is up to scratch, that they're doing everything they can to mitigate those risks for their employees: the players?

Equally, World Rugby may one day soon find themselves explaining in court why they didn't change the laws of the game to make it a safer environment. A fundamental part of their obligation as a regulator is to pursue foul play. Last weekend we had referee Jaco 'I'm on a Different Planet' Peyper failing to check on an incident that caused pretty much the whole stadium to gasp. Had he rechecked the high hit by Guilhem Guirado on Dave Kearney then common sense - and duty of care - would have obliged him to red card the France captain. He was supported in this negligence by TMO George Ayoub, who was on duty in Cardiff in the World Cup quarter-final when the Pumas' Ramiro Herrera was blessed to stay on the field after a head-led clear-out on Rory Best.

Evidently the citing officer on reflection considered this no more than a yellow card incident - if indeed that - which would explain why no disciplinary procedure followed. In the context of a sport whose physicality is spiralling out of control, this beggars belief. How can we expect players to run and pass if they are not protected? We are getting closer to the day when explaining that situation - a game preoccupied with minor amendments instead of major alterations - will be done in a court of law.

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