David Ferguson: Tide turning against rugby's demolition men
THE changing face of rugby is becoming patently clear as bodies continue to grow bigger, injuries mount and more rugby players become familiar with hospital food.
As the Calcutta Cup today celebrates much that is good about the game of rugby, from the intensity of top-class international action to the friendships on and off the field, it will be a different game featuring very different athletes that spectators trooping into Murrayfield will be settling down to watch.
For the purposes of comparison, we have used the official statistics of the Scotland players from the 1990 Grand Slam match at Murrayfield and those for the players who will line up for the anthems just before 5pm today.
The differences are significant and lie at the heart of why the ferocity of the modern game is much greater and the consequences more severe when players collide.
Thom Evans is the latest international rugby player to suffer a serious injury on the field of play and as he begins what will be a long period of recovery from two spinal operations he will do so knowing he was an unfortunate victim in the sport. There was no maliciousness, no dirty play and no wrong decisions by officials that contributed to his injury.
This week, Craig Hamilton, another Scotland internationalist is trying to come to terms with a head injury that is expected to keep him out of rugby for several months, having been smashed in the face by the head of Ospreys prop Cai Griffiths, who had launched himself torpedo-like at the Edinburgh lock from the side of a ruck. It is a growing menace that the IRB have instructed referees to take seriously, and so Griffiths was penalised. Seriously? It should have been a red card if the referee was serious about it so the message is clearly not yet strong enough.
Griffiths has now been banned for four weeks, but he will expect to play a full part in the Ospreys' end-of-season run-in despite having threatened the career of a fellow professional. John Beattie played for Scotland through the 1980s and was considered a big player, but he was never bigger than 6ft 4in and just over 15 stones. His son Johnnie makes his first appearance in the Calcutta Cup today, standing at the same 6ft 4in mark but weighing 16 stones 10lbs.
Beattie senior stated: "The game is totally different now. I heard the stat recently that of Scotland's 35-man World Cup squad in 2007, 27 have had operations as a result of their rugby.
"Five players ended up in hospital after the Wales game – three from Scotland and two from Wales – and we see them being increasingly beaten up.
"In the Lions' second Test last summer there were five just from the Lions taken to hospital, and then some Springboks. I played in Lions Tests and we never had anyone taken to hospital, and it was the same with Scotland. Injuries for us were freak occurrences, but now every player expects them as routine.
"It is bad for every mother, but I predicted when the game went professional that it would become like 'Rollerball', the film: a bunch of highly-paid athletes who risk life and limb to entertain people. Modern international rugby is about people pinning unrealistic hopes on a group of individuals – the punters expect these players to do absolutely anything to win, even if that means flying into a 20-stone man coming at you at full pelt.
"It's a bit like boxing – spectators want to see the confrontations. People expect every hit to be a Samoan type of hit and that's the difference."
Dr James Robson, one of world rugby's most experienced medics, has been involved at the top end of international rugby for over 20 years, and toured with the British and Irish Lions since 1993.
He is a quiet man publicly, but has been shouting loudly through various hallowed halls of rugby for change to make the game safer. It was an ironic coincidence that in the week where his mind was taken up with the care of Evans in Cardiff the IRB announced he was to help a new working party set up to look at spinal injuries in the game. It was one of three groups launched by the IRB to assess safety in rugby and he believes that is a sign the tide may be about to turn.
"The significant change in rugby is not really the number of injuries," he said. "I pre-date the professional era so I know the numbers are not worse in the pro game, but it's the type.
"You now see more injuries that disrupt joints, knee ligament, shoulder and hip. Injuries we didn't see before. Before it was more torn hamstrings, groins.
"I couldn't verify at this minute that we've had 27 players from the last World Cup operated on, but you can look around any modern-day squad and you'd be hard pushed to find one player that hasn't had some form of surgery. It has almost become the norm.
"What amazes me is that people can play any sport and through their love of the sport they will simply have surgery to correct it, and because of the advances in surgery and rehab, they then get back to that sport, where in years gone past they'd have had surgery and gracefully retired."
He declines to discuss particular injuries, but his anger grows visibly when asked about his take on what happened to Hamilton at Murrayfield on Sunday.
"We are seeing a number of injuries occurring from illegal play and that should bring a ban of several months, not weeks, in my opinion. In fact, I'd make the punishment fit the crime if I could, by putting the player who did it out for as long as the player injured.
"If we're passionate about stamping that out then the penalties have to be harsher. But what it really comes down to is making players and coaches more aware of the trends.
"They speak about the contact area, fine, but why has 'collisions' become a buzzword? Collision to me implies that people are just running into each other, rather than trying to tackle each other.
"You have to change the mindset of the coaches and players. Rugby is a game of skill. It has become a very physical game but we're losing the spectacle, so let's get back to skill. And instead of trying to win the 'collision' why don't we try and actually find the space, and avoid the collision."
There is an obvious fear rugby is creating a monster, one where body sizes continue to grow beyond their natural frames. Players continue to pad-up too, to cope with the hits, but that in turn allows some to head into contact with more vigour than their normal self-preservation instincts would normally permit.
Beattie would like to see the scrum 'hit' stopped, the two packs made to bind up and brought together safely before then being asked to scrummage.
"But elsewhere there's not much you can do," he added. "Rugby is the most physical game in the world and there's an honesty to it. It's (a] horribly sore game to play and yet people do it.
"People will inevitably get stronger and the pitch hasn't changed size in over 100 years, so the game will get more physical; more collisions and more injuries.
"But I would add that we now have two games – international rugby, which is what we're talking about, and amateur rugby, which is still the fun, enjoyable game without the same high-octane, smashing game the pros play. It's about skills and fun, and unlike the elite level is not designed to entertain and shock."
Dr Robson is more upbeat and believes he senses a realisation by the top players and coaches that rugby has gone too far, that a monster is in danger of being created if steps are not taken to arrest the trend.
"I think that penny has dropped and I am now more optimistic than I've ever been that we will sort things out.
"Players and coaches have a big role to play, and I like the fact that coaches believe putting players into space is the way forward, rather than into 'collisions'. The sooner that becomes more widespread the sooner we'll have fewer serious injuries and perhaps more enjoyable rugby for everyone again."
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Sunday 19 May 2013
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