THE physical toll taken by modern rugby is being analysed by medical experts across the world but James King is calling time on his professional career in the belief that his body just cannot cope with it.
The 27-year-old centre turned pro straight out of Berwick High School and made his debut for the Border Reivers as an 18-year-old. When that club was closed down by the SRU, he played in New Zealand and then Italy, with L’Aquila, before returning to Scotland and rejoining Melrose. After a few months out of the game, where he enjoyed the teenage “gap year” he never had, working on the yachts of the rich and famous in Monaco, he returned to the game and was quickly snapped up by Edinburgh. However, after just two seasons in the capital, King has been released, and, after struggling with a groin injury, has decided to use his experience in more of a coaching capacity.
“I have not completely turned my back on pro rugby because you never know,” he insisted.
“It’s frustrating because I believe that I have the ability to play at the highest level and so I think to myself ‘maybe with time off and a summer away from rugby, my body might be able to cope for a bit longer’ but the truth is that, when you get back into the intensity of training required for pro rugby these days, the injury flares up.
“Last season it was fantastic to be playing regularly through a great Heineken Cup with Edinburgh. I think I played ten games on the trot at one point and my form was good but then the groin injury came back just before the quarter-finals and I was out for the rest of the season.
“I had an operation, which really improved it, but I still haven’t been able to train fully so it’s been a struggle to get selected this season and it’s not just the physical side but, mentally, it’s draining.
“I’ve had to accept that my body maybe won’t allow me to achieve what I want in the game. I would love to stay at Edin-burgh, because it’s a good club, but it’s not meant to be.”
King is not the only player to feel his body cannot keep up with the demands of rugby in recent years. The idea of a player taking the field 100 per cent free of knocks or pain does appear to be rare now. The quality of medical care is far advanced from when the game went pro in 1995, and that has enabled many players to be more safely managed through serious injuries which, in the past, could have forced them to quit.
However, doctors admit that while confident that a prograame of pre-rehab, ongoing physio, recovery and post-injury rehab gives players better chances to cope, they do not know entirely what rugby players who have pushed their bodies to the limit, and battled back from injuries, will be like when they are in their 50s and 60s.
King’s injury problem is one that is not uncommon in contact sport, osteitis pubis, essentially a non-infectious inflammation of the pubis symphysis joint in the pubic bones, which causes varying degrees of lower abdominal and pelvic pain. The repeated trauma of collisions is one of several causes.
But King is quick to state that he has no issues with how his career has ended. He insisted that he played the game with his eyes wide open. “It is just part and parcel of the life of a pro,” he said. “The impacts are getting bigger and collisions are greater and that has to be replicated in training to an extent for players to be able to cope in games.
“When Stevie Scott and Hodgey [Duncan Hodge] came in at Edinburgh recently, the intensity stepped up in training which was what we needed, but then I started feeling it in my groin again and you get to a stage where you know that, if you try to play through it, you’re going to let yourself and your team-mates down. Our analyst Ciaran Beattie had to retire at a young age because of it, and he was an outstanding player as a youngster, and John Barclay had it but has got through with good management.
“You will pick up knocks coming through the game now, and very few guys don’t have some sort of injury when you’re knocking lumps out of each other in training and then facing the impacts we have in matches now.
“The strength and conditioning guys are top class and my career has probably been extended because of the way I’ve been managed. For example, I’ve not been asked to do leg weights for years because that puts a great load through the groin area. It has changed a lot since I first stepped into pro rugby ten years ago.”
Intriguingly, King is joining forces with another promising young talent who has similarly been released by Edinburgh due to lengthy battles with injury, 26-year-old lock Steve Turnbull. The pair are launching a series of summer camps across the country under the banner of “Pro’s Life”, where they will seek to enthuse youngsters about the game of rugby but with a focus on the importance of nutrition, diet, strength and conditioning and other areas necessary to cope with pro rugby.
“I’m excited about that and it has definitely helped provide a focus right now as I step away from a full-time life of a rugby player,” added King. “I don’t want my story to put people off, because I have much to be thankful for over the past ten years. I grew up playing rugby in Berwick and have always loved the game, and that hasn’t changed. I can still play and, depending on where my career takes me, I am sure I’ll be playing club rugby again next season.
“Training twice or thrice a week is not a problem, it’s just the demands of daily training and high-intensity games that were maybe a bit too much for my body. But the game gives you so much, from friendships, camaraderie, fitness, leadership, skills and the knowledge of how important your body is, that I am hopeful that I can now use my experience to help the game and young players.”