Iain Morrison: Size of players is wrecking rugby

THE autumn series of international matches was both entertaining and educational. Hitherto, I had no idea what purpose the spleen served, but now I know.

Max Evans clearly doesnt score against South Africa. Picture: SNS/SRU
Max Evans clearly doesnt score against South Africa. Picture: SNS/SRU

It has been strategically placed just below the rib cage to offer Fiji’s tacklers something to aim at, because the Italian centre Luca Morisi had his burst by winger Asaeli Tikoirotuma. The Italian’s spleen, or what was left of it, had to be surgically removed.

It wasn’t the only injury to catch the eye. I would not normally lose too much sleep over England hooker Dylan Hartley getting bashed but I wasn’t even aware that lungs could be bruised. Well, his can, as we discovered during the All Blacks match. Evidently bruised lungs are more usually associated with boxing so such an injury tends to make you stop and think.

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Rugby is a rough sport. The problem is that it’s getting rougher with every passing season. Club coaches expect to be without 25-33 per cent of their players at any one time due to injury. The players are getting bigger and so too are the collisions. In fact one orthopaedic surgeon recently opined that rugby was becoming a sport for “freaks”.

Professor John Fairclough accepts that he is not an expert on the game but he was the president of the British Sports Trauma Association, so he is not completely ignorant of high-impact sports.

“The game [rugby] has to acknowledge that the impact at ruck and maul has to be reduced,” said the good professor. Had the biff and bash expert also been a rugby buff, he would have added the tackle to that list. “Rugby used to be a sport for all shapes and sizes and now it is a sport for freaks,” he added. And he isn’t alone because, in the very same week, Welsh legend JPR Williams, himself an orthopaedic surgeon, made a similar point. “If it’s all going to be about size then rugby union will die. It’s strength has always been that, regardless of how big or small you are, there’s always a place in the side for you if you’re good enough. The players now are much bigger, less skilful and it’s all about power.”

He’s right. Rugby is now a game of power. The reasons are many and varied: professionalism has heralded a revolution in conditioning, but the stop/start nature of the game also plays a part, so my heart sank when I read that the use of two referees will be trialled in next year’s South African Varsity Cup. South African Rugby Union referees boss Andre Watson said it would herald “less stoppages and more flow”, without pausing to explain how, exactly, this miracle would come about. Anyone who expects two more eyes and one more whistle to result in fewer stoppages rather than more is seriously deluded. This is just one of the reasons that rugby is slowly morphing into American football, and just look at the size of the beasts in that particular jungle.

A game in which aerobic fitness is a key component of every player limits the size of those participating because, to put it bluntly, fat blokes can’t run for 80 minutes. But, now, no one has to thanks to the stop/start nature of the modern game and a human arms race has been result.

Referees are part of the problem, not the solution. We already have four (one referee, two assistant referees and one television match official), three of whom can halt play for infringements, while stoppages for injuries are also on the rise. What happened to the directive a few years back to get on with the game while a player receives treatment? Obviously, the game must stop for something serious but, with the ever-increasing number of injuries, it is incumbent on everyone else to get a hurry on, especially the TMO. When Scotland played South Africa the video referee took over three minutes to declare what everyone else in the ground already knew, that Max Evans had not scored a try from Duncan Weir’s grubber kick. Referees are now paranoid about making mistakes, so they “go upstairs” just in case.

Except in exceptional circumstances, TMOs should have the same time as a goalkicker (60 seconds for a penalty Jonny Sexton!) to make their minds up or concede defeat. Recent changes to the laws allow referees to go back for foul play or forward passes in the lead-up to a try. Another reason to stop the game, another opportunity for players to rest. Admittedly, the ball-in-play time has risen in recent years from 25 minutes at the 1991 Rugby World Cup to 35 minutes at the 2011 version. But the ball-in-play time is something of a red herring because many stoppages now occur with the “time off”. Referees stop the clock so often that the recent Ireland/Samoa match lasted almost two hours from first whistle to last. Analysis of the 2012 Super Rugby season showed that games had around 57 stoppages, each an average of 50 seconds, every one allowing the out-sized players a chance to recover.

On top of stoppages for everything else, play is now interrupted to allow for rafts and rafts of substitutions. Eight are now permitted, more if a front row forward has to return to action. So, up to 11 – on each team. Twenty-two in all. With. A. Stoppage. For. Every. One. Of. Them. If. Needs. Be.

Frustrating isn’t it?

One possible solution would be to restrict substitutions to the front row plus two others (one back, one forward), not because of the time they take but because players who have to last the full 80 minutes will quickly lose muscle mass and the power that goes with it.

Freaks would be replaced by quicker, more skilful players and the game would follow suit. The emphasis on gym work would be reduced in a more balanced sport where skill, speed and vision are as important as power, muscle and the ability to run through brick walls. That simple change would do infinitely more good for the game than adding yet another whistle-happy referee. Luca Morisi would argue the case vehemently if only he still had a spleen to vent.