RFU chief executive Bill Sweeney described it as a ‘serious moment’ for the sport. Quite right. Rugby must address its concussion crisis by considering profound, radical action.
Harrowing testimony from World Cup winner Steve Thompson and Wales’ Alix Popham has exposed the fact that, certainly at professional level, this game can pose a chronic health risk.
Retired players confronting early onset dementia and other serious conditions are taking legal action against the RFU and other governing bodies. A storm is coming. So rugby must embrace the need to get ahead of this problem, rather than just react to it.
Former Northampton and England star Steve Thompson has revealed he has dementia after admitting he cannot remember winning the World Cup in 2003
At amateur level the risks are limited, but parents won’t want their children to buy into the game if the shop window is seen to contain a dangerous product. Minor tweaks are being proposed. The discussion about reducing the number of replacements has intensified, but the better solution would be to reduce numbers, full stop.
Why settle for a remedy which will only have an effect on the latter part of games, when fatigue sets in? Endless law changes can be counter-productive, as Exeter’s Rob Baxter has argued. So make it 12-a-side. Seriously.
The objective must be to reduce the number of punishing collisions and that can be achieved by forcing a shift towards rugby being about evasion. The target should be to search for space, not for brutal contact.
Bill Sweeney, the chief executive of the RFU, believes rugby’s reputation could suffer as a result of legal action being taken by players in regards to concussions
There has been much talk about how rugby is cyclical by nature, but in this regard it is no such thing. The advent of professionalism led to advances in fitness, skills and defensive organisation, which have changed the game and cannot be easily reversed.
Players possess greater size, speed and stamina, allowing them to have far more involvement in a game, but also — as an unintended consequence — do each other far more harm.
In the amateur days, 15 versus 15 meant there was still space to exploit. But in 2020, there are fewer gaps. Brilliant attacking play still opens up defences, but the norm is for teams to form walls which need to be knocked down through bone-on-bone collisions.
Exeter boss Rob Baxter (above) believes endless law changes can be counter-productive as rugby addresses concussion crisis
Cutting the numbers would open up the game and lead to a focus on mobility and athleticism, reducing the frequency of hits which rattle players’ brains inside their skulls. It would see a return to attackers running at space and outstretched arms, rather than a line of shoulders. It would reduce double tackles and high shots on carriers running at their nearest opponent, in the absence of other options.
This isn’t a call to sell rugby union’s soul, by turning it into sevens or league. The essence of the sport does not have to be abandoned. Retain true set-piece contests, but with fewer participants. Allow for the theatre of big hits in open play but remove the punishing intensity when players batter each other senseless to advance centimetres.
It is a physical activity now and that is how it should remain. But the authorities need to consider drastic action, to safeguard rugby’s future. Cut the number of matches, and also the number of players.
That’s more like it
Many thanks to Clermont Auvergne — and also valiant Bristol — for restoring faith in rugby’s ability to provide an enthralling spectacle.
Their encounter on Saturday was a glorious exhibition of the game’s attacking skills and a welcome statement to the TV audience. It was proof the ball does not have to be treated like a ticking time bomb and kicked away as often as possible.
Clermont Auvergne and Bristol produced an enthralling 89-point spectacle on Saturday
The primacy of Test rugby will be under threat if international teams in these parts continue to engage in stodgy, stifling contests while clubs embrace a tactical liberation.
The last word
The draw for the 2023 World Cup takes place in Paris on Monday, which seems unnecessarily early. The French organisers don’t need two-and-a-half years to sell all their tickets, so this gala event could have been delayed by a year to make the seedings more relevant.
As it is, they will be based on world rankings from January. Wales are the primary beneficiaries as they will be among the top seeds, despite having fallen to ninth in the rankings. England, South Africa and New Zealand are the other top seeds and they will hope to avoid France, who have the potential to emerge as title favourites but are in the second tier, along with Australia, Ireland and Japan.
For England, the doomsday scenario would be a repeat of their 2019 pool containing France and Argentina, who are among the third tier of seeds, with Scotland, Italy and Fiji.
Here’s hoping for New Zealand and France to be drawn together.
MY TEAM OF THE WEEK
15 K Matsushima (Clermont Auvergne)
14 X Mignot (Lyon)
13 V Vakatawa (Racing 92)
12 G Moala (Clermont Auvergne)
11 S Evans (Scarlets)
10 L Carbonel (Toulon)
9 D Robson (Wasps)
1 T Paiva (Bordeaux)
2 J Yeandle (Exeter)
3 H Williams (Exeter)
4 W Skelton (La Rochelle)
5 S Lousi (Scarlets)
6 J Willis (Wasps)
8 F Lee (Clermont Auvergne)
7 J Van der Flier (Leinster)
Clermont’s first at Ashton Gate was an absolute cracker, as Damian Penaud carved through in midfield and released Alivereti Raka, whose inside pass sent Kotaro Matsushima over to score.
Montpellier owner Mohed Altrad sat alone on a seat behind his team’s reserves as the French club suffered another European ordeal, this time at the hands of Leinster.
Sergio Parisse is now 37, but he hasn’t lost his instinctive class, as Toulon’s Italian captain (right) proved with a one-handed, overhead assist for Ramiro Moyano’s try against Sale.
The Scarlets defended valiantly to upset Bath at the Rec and their defiance was typified by Wales full back Leigh Halfpenny’s try-saving tackle and grapple to deny Josh Matavesi.
Northampton will likely slump to a 12th straight defeat on Saturday as Chris Boyd intends to pick a shadow team against Leinster. The Saints are braced for a survival battle in the league.
Wasps endured a Covid-19 outbreak before the last Premiership Final so it was alarming to learn two hours before their win over the Dragons that the opposition had suffered two new cases.
Now that would be a fixture to ignite the tournament on the opening night.
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