Saturday 16 December 2017

Comment: New ferocity in rugby drags innocents into the blood-spilling

Eddie Butler says huge players losing control is a worry for rugby's future

Jonathan Sexton, Ireland, picks up a blood injury following a clash of heads during the second half. RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship, Ireland v France. Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE
Jonathan Sexton, Ireland, picks up a blood injury following a clash of heads during the second half. RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship, Ireland v France. Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE

Eddie Butler

IT should have been an intriguing tale of who came back and who came on. It should have been a story of contrasts between the reassuring return of Jonathan Sexton and Seán O'Brien from injury to start the game, and the blast off the bench of Vincent Debaty, Uini Atonio and Romain Taofifenua. The rugby stock of Belgium (Debaty) and Polynesia (the other two) rose considerably after they nearly turned a game that was going Ireland's way on its head.

It should have been wholesome fare. Instead rugby continues to provoke more winces than gasps of admiration.

First, there was the knee of Pascal Pape delivered with malice aforethought to the back of Jamie Heaslip. The French second-row was sent to the bin for 10 minutes; the Irish No 8 continued as best he could for a similar length of time and then hobbled off. Somehow, justice did not seem to be done. Pape should have been shown a straight red card.

And then there were more clashes of heads and more blood pouring from cuts to faces. The choke tackle was acceptable when it involved second‑rows - Donncha O'Callaghan and Paul O'Connell were early masters of the high grasp and hold - suspending victims above the ground. But now outside-halves are tackling high.

Before the game the question was repeatedly asked: would Sexton, returning from his 12-week rest after four concussions last year, put his head in the way of danger. France promised that they would seek an answer early enough in the match.

And they did. And Sexton provided clear evidence that, yes, he was not inclined to stay clear of danger.

He put himself in harm's way when Mathieu Bastareaud came his way - "into his channel", as the phrase goes. It was hugely brave and hugely important to the Irish defensive effort. Nobody had to make adjustments and fill in for Sexton. He stood his ground.

But when he went for the giant on the charge and their heads banged together, it provided yet more evidence that the trend of going high, to prevent the ball being slipped away out of contact, is going to lead to all sorts of trouble. Both players went off to be stitched and strapped up. They both finished the game. No harm done.

In two rounds, we have seen Dan Biggar unzipped against England and now Sexton against France. These are the glamour players, whose very existence on the field was defined - and not so very long ago - by the very reluctance of the principal playmaker to engage in the mucky stuff of contact. Now they rush in to make their tackles as willingly as the next player.

As if concussion were not already a big enough worry, the game is openly promoting exposure to unconsciousness. If it carries on at this rate, kick‑offs will have to delayed until after the watershed.

Sexton, by the way, played with admirable composure and, for somebody who has been absent from all contact since playing against Australia in November, with precision. His kicking in the first half especially was beautifully weighted and deliciously mixed up. He kicked with a spiral, he booted end over end; he kicked long and he dinked short.

If his accuracy deserted him a little in the second half - he kicked straight out - he was still a little maestro at work. Rugby is - was - a home for people of all sizes and weights. You can survive by stroking and caressing. Or you could. These gentlest of artists should be protected. Enough is enough. Tackle low, you 10s. Make it a law of the game.

Leave the heavyweight bashing and banging to men such as Debaty and Atonio and Taofifénua. The game is for their shapes and weights too and they should be encouraged to plough into each other all day. Of course it would be good to see them play roles beyond the cameo. Twenty minutes of activity may disguise a complete lack of aerobic fitness. The game was designed to be played by 15 players per side over 80 minutes.

As impressively as these replacements - and Iain Henderson was just as prominent off the Irish bench - altered the flow of the game, it was not a real contribution. Rugby is now a game for 46 players - too many, not playing for long enough. The monsters, bearded and snorting, came on and burrowed their way forward, and influenced the game enormously. And where was Wesley Fofana, the one player on the French side to offer something a little less forthright? Stuck on the wing, out of harm's way, but also out of contact with the ball.

It is said that the ferocity of rugby is not a deterrent to the sport's expansion plans. Well, up to a point. Brutality among the brutes is one thing.

Dragging the innocents into the blood-spilling is to transport the game to the dark side. Where the Papés of the world roam. Lose control and we shall be sending food parcels to players not just beyond the watershed, but behind bars.

Observer

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