Sport Rugby

Monday 20 November 2017

Tony Ward: I'm not sure I would play rugby if I was starting out now

Mind-numbing lack of space leaves me seriously worried about the future of the game I love

Ireland wing Simon Zebo is tackled by French pair Mathieu Bastareaud, left, and Remi Lamera
Ireland wing Simon Zebo is tackled by French pair Mathieu Bastareaud, left, and Remi Lamera
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

After Saturday's game, despite the temporary euphoria of the win, I left Lansdowne Road depressed. I fear greatly for where the game is going - and in many areas where it has already gone.

It is a worry born of a lifetime's involvement in the game at every level - an involvement that is ongoing within underage rugby, and I hope will continue for some considerable time to come.

The response to my heartfelt concerns expressed in these pages earlier in the week about the erosion of space has been overwhelming in its support.

My games of choice growing up were rugby in school and soccer outside. I loved both. I relished the challenge of breaking down organised defences in both codes.

Whether I was playing for Harold's Cross Boys, Rangers Boys or St Mary's U-10s, the principle of attacking and creating space was my driving force, and remained so throughout my playing career at every level.

The concept of space defines sport, and therein lies my problem - and the major problem rugby faces going forward.

So when I suggest the need for the rugby union authorities to follow the route taken by rugby league and reduce numbers to 13-a-side, it is not because I want union to ape league - the two codes have a very different appeal.

League learned early that with professionalism came a rapid increase in players' strength and fitness, making the creation of space much harder.

I would hate to see flankers removed from our game (the league solution), or indeed wingers.

Rugby union is still a fantastic 15-a-side code at club and underage level, but the professional game is at suffocation point. In order to maintain interest and keep bums on seats, World Rugby has two options: it either decreases the number of players or increases the size of the pitch.

Given that stadia are structurally in place around the world, the latter solution looks nigh-on impossible.

Bear in mind too that rugby union addressed the numbers problem in times past - cutting down from 20 to 15 in 1877, seven years after the first laws had been framed.

Rugby union broke away from the Football Association in 1863; the Northern Football Union (rugby league) broke away from union in 1895, and 11 years later reduced its team size from 15 to 13.

VARIATION

The IRB (now World Rugby) took up the reins in 1886 and declared the pitch dimensions to be approximately 100 metres by 70 metres, and there, give or take minimal variation, they have remained to this day.

In the meantime, particularly since the game went open in 1995, players have got bigger, fitter, faster, stronger - and yes much more skilful too in terms of passing, carrying and offloading.

Is it a better game? I'll leave you to make up your own mind.

It is certainly no longer a game for all shapes and sizes, despite our best efforts at schools and underage to keep it that way.

Concussion has been a hot topic of late, and rightly so. A large number of medical people (at every level) have contacted me expressing concern for what lies ahead for the professional generation in retirement.

There is no comparison between the intensity of contact in the tackle now and in times past - or indeed the technique employed.

I hated retirement and missed so much about playing a game I so loved. But now I question whether I would want to be out there as part of a system of mind-numbing rugby by numbers.

Rugby union was initially set up for amateurs, in terms of its laws and pitch dimensions. We now need a professional arena appropriate to professional needs and the increasing physicality of the game.

When the world sees Rugby Sevens at the Rio Olympics, the full-blown game is going to face an even greater challenge from within.

Sevens was always a nice end-of-season, social alternative to 15-a-side, but that is set to change as Sevens now offers the free-running, quick-passing, try-scoring extravaganza that the main game once did.

There will still be the occasional high-profile match that breaks the modern-day mould but they are becoming rarer and rarer.

The appeal now is the occasion and being there, with the entertainment value contained by and large in the result.

That's what really gets to me. Here we are, having just beaten the French and extended our winning run to nine matches, yet far from the pyrotechnic feel it should have, it seems such a damp squib.

And I really don't see myself as a killjoy. I know what it takes to win consistently at this level, and I appreciate that Joe Schmidt is doing some job.

But I am seriously worried about the future of the game I love.

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