Allan Massie: A contact sport but rugby must make playing safer

A series of injuries forced Sam Warburton to retire. Picture: Martin Hunter/Getty Images
A series of injuries forced Sam Warburton to retire. Picture: Martin Hunter/Getty Images
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KG Macleod, the greatest Scottish three-quarter before the First World War, retired from rugby at the age of twenty-one. He did so at his father’s request because his elder brother had been badly injured playing the game. I mention this to show that rugby has always been a dangerous game, and that what are considered premature retirements like Sam Warburton’s are nothing new. Warburton is twenty-nine, an age at which retirement from international, and indeed often club, rugby was quite usual in the amateur days when careers at the top level were generally shorter than they are now.

Still, there is general agreement that certain elements of the game have become too dangerous. There will be an experiment this season in the (second-tier) English Championship Cup: any tackle above the nipple line will be deemed illegal.

Richie Vernon and Grayson Hart, Scottish internationalists who may be playing for London Scottish in this competition, have questioned the wisdom of this move. Jim Hamilton, now retired, has suggested that lowering the tackle line may actually result in more injuries, because when there is a two-man tackle, coming from different angles, the heads of both tacklers are more likely to be at the same height and banging into each other. This makes sense.

World Rugby, having analysed some 1,500 “elite” matches , declares that “the risk to injury from a legal high contact tackle is 4.3 times greater than from a low-contact one”. This sounds persuasive, at least until you reflect that high-contact tackles are now more common than low-contact ones, perhaps even 4.3 times more common. Nevertheless, Gareth Edwards is surely right when he says that the change from tackling round the hips or lower to tackling round the shoulders in an attempt to dislodge the ball makes head injuries more likely.

Watching a fair amount of Rugby League where two- and even three-man tackles are common, even the norm, and where at least one tackler will be going high – higher indeed than is now permissible in the Union game, I have the impression that there are fewer head injuries and, apparently, fewer cases of concussion, in League. Yet League, with its simpler laws, is essentially a running and tackling game. So, if it is also a safer one, we should be asking why, and then what the Union game can learn from League.

One reason it is safer is that there is practically no competition at the tackle point, less chance of effecting a turnover, and no clearing out of opposition players. Competition and clearing-out at the tackle point unquestionably make head injuries more likely. League makes a provision for the surrender of possession after the fifth tackle. In Union we now regularly have a succession of one-pass, or pick-and-go drives which allow a team to retain possession for long periods and many phases. Moreover, the player carrying the ball at close quarters to the opposition will often charge with lowered head, indeed with his head lower than his hips. This sort of play is almost bound to lead to head 
injuries.

One has another impression watching League. Though most of the players are big and strong, few appear to be grossly bulked-up; they look like natural athletes at , or close to, their natural body weight. This is too often not the impression made by the Union game. Martyn Williams, that outstanding flanker for Wales and the Lions, suggested this week that Sam Warburton had been playing at something close to a stone over his natural body weight, and this can make serious injury more probable. Williams, as I recall, never looked as if he had bulked up excessively.

There are lots of other suggestions. Reducing the number of permitted replacements is one, the argument being that injuries are likely when a fresh players raring to go comes into contact with a tiring one. This makes sense, but I doubt if there will be any significant change. Reverting to the old law which permitted replacements only for injured players opens the way to various sorts of dishonesty.

There have been demands for less contact work in training – and not only from English clubs angered by the number of players who return injured from Eddie Jones’s reputedly brutal training sessions. Coaches will doubtless ask whether players can learn proper – and indeed safe – techniques if they don’t engage in contact work in training – which is, I suppose, fair comment.

The arguments will go on because there are no simple answers; and because, as rugby is a contact sport, there will always be injuries to heads, limbs, bones and joints. The problem is how to make the game safer without losing its character. One reform is fairly simple: restrict the number of games a player is permitted to play in a season, or calendar year. The modern game is so demanding that players need more recovery time. I would guess there would be fewer injuries, certainly less in the way of long-term damage to bodies if players were not allowed to play three weeks in succession.