26th October 2015
Rugby Union has changed immeasurably since its amateur days. A seminal event occurred in the 1995 World Cup when a 6 feet 4”and 20 stone New Zealand winger burst onto the scene. Every rugby fan will remember how Jonah Lomu almost single-handedly destroyed the England defence in the quarter-finals, scoring 4 tries in the process. After the game, Will Carling famously referred to Jonah as a ‘freak’. Sour grapes? But I do get what he was saying, although, the more polite terminology (and more scientific phrase) would have been ‘outlier’ – in other words, Jonah was considerably bigger and stronger than most other players in the competition. To put things in context, Jonah’s opposite number in the quarter final match was around 7 inches smaller and 5 stones lighter.
In the 2015 World Cup, almost every other player seemed to possess a Jonah’esque physique. The propensity towards more powerful players, in addition to some significant rule changes in recent years, means that modern Rugby Union is a fast paced, collision based sport where the ball is in play for long periods of time. Open space is at a premium and most players choose to run at the opposition (as opposed to avoiding them). There are certainly less mismatches these days. This makes things a little fairer, but the trade-off is that, props no longer look phased when faced with 20 yards of open space with the ball in hands (unlike the halcyon days of amateur rugby); and fly halves making tackles is a real phenomenon. Cynics might say that the modern obsession with physicality and collision is detrimental to players’ fundamental skill sets eg. Passing, catching, evasive manoeuvring and agility. But you would be a braver man than me to say this publically!
Another more important concern is that the corollary of heavier players, running at faster speeds, is an increase in force when they collide (Force = mass x acceleration). Injury surveillance research (1) in Rugby Union consistently shows the tackle to be the most dangerous facet of play, responsible for over 75% of all injuries occurring in the professional game. A typical professional rugby team can expect to incur around 2 injuries per game, with many enforcing significant time loss and tissue damage. This can take its toll on individuals season by season and according to recent RFU reports, last year, 23 professional players in the English Premiership were forced to retire from rugby union, at an average age of 31 years. That’s approximately 2 players per team season. Concussion remains a concern and constitutes over 1 in 10 injuries reported in professional rugby. This figure is inflated compared to previous years, but this could be partly explained by recent improvements to concussion awareness and hopefully a more transparent and ethical method of data reporting in this area. Concussion aside, 4 out of the 5 most common injuries in rugby involve the lower limb, with ligament damage to the knee, ankle and hamstring muscle injuries being the perennials.
These figures have fuelled a growing band of anti-rugby enthusiasts making calls to remove the tackle from the game, or at worst, banning the sport altogether. Removing the tackle would doubtlessly result in an immediate amelioration to injury risk, but the trade-off would be that we would no longer be dealing with rugby. I would suggest that the law makers have already made some positive decisions around the contact situation in recent years and there is almost a zero tolerance approach on body checking, high tackles, neck rolls and ‘lifting and dumping’. This is doubtlessly an area that World Rugby will continue to monitor, but we should bear in mind that a ‘safe collision’ is an oxymoron.
(1). England Professional Rugby Injury Surveillance Project. http://www.englandrugby.com/mm/Document/General/General/01/30/80/08/EnglandProfessionalRugbyInjurySurveillanceProjectReport2013_2014_Neutral.pdf