OPINION: Super Rugby Aotearoa just gave the game away and it may well be the end of rugby as we know it.
The fans all rushed back to the stadia to see how rugby really should be played at the top level and when it was all over, when Covid made us all have to take a breath once more, the coaches and the players told us that it just wasn’t possible to keep playing at such a physically demanding level.
Please, please, please, they pleaded, can we have some Aussies sides back in soon, because we really need some easy beat games. And we hear you guys, that is all absolutely fair enough, but it comes with one fearful truth. It means that the game of rugby is no longer viable.
If rugby is not sustainable at its most excellent, at its most beautiful, at its most physical, then there is something inherently rotten with the laws of the game. We are playing and watching a lie. And that lie requires someone in power to wake up and make some huge changes to the way the game is played.
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You can’t fool the fans. You can tone down the levels if you want by bringing in some second rate sides from Oz, but most of us aren’t going to pay to watch that stuff. Real rugby looks like the Crusaders against the Canes, or the Blues and the Chiefs ripping through a local derby or the Highlanders defending the sanctity of their southern turf against the swanky big towners.
But real rugby is destroying players lives and will come at a fearful cost down the line. Look at Sam Cane. The man’s a hero. He loves rugby. He will soon be broken beyond repair. And Cane is just the figurehead of a ship crewed by men who will be tattered shadows of themselves by the age of 50. You only have to look to the other side of the world to know the truth of that.
A few days ago Jack Clifford, a former England flanker, was forced to retire from rugby. He was 27, a year younger than Cane. Clifford said; “My shoulder is bolted on, my hamstring is bolted on, my ankle is bolted on. I don’t know what I’ll be like at 50.”
Clifford received a text from James Forrester, another who played in the back row for England, saying; “I doubt you remember me, but back in 2008 I retired at 27 as well”. It could have turned into a group chat. Tom Rees, another England flanker, retired in 2012 at the age of 27. Sam Jones, another flanker, retired at the age of 26 in 2018 after being smashed to pieces in an England training session.
And the only thing that any sane man can conclude from this is that rugby is no longer sustainable in its current form. We can’t keep tweaking the edges. We have to make some big changes, we have to make changes that will reduce the frequency and the damage of the physical impacts.
Neurosurgeon Jean Chazal published a book called ‘Ce rugby qui tue.’ – this rugby which kills. It is this rugby, today’s rugby, which took the life of four French players in eight months. It is this rugby that had Chazal comparing player injuries to those sustained in road traffic accidents before seat belts and airbags were introduced.
World Rugby had better act soon because I can promise them a storm is coming. The game’s governing body and its incorporated unions are going to be sued and their liabilities will be colossal. It happened to the NFL and is going to happen to rugby in the next 12 months or so.
World Rugby must change the game, even if the changes come tragically too late for far too many young men and women.
There seems to be three very obvious ways to go about this. The first is to reduce the size of teams from 15 to 12. Both flankers can be removed from the pack, a position of absolute carnage, and a wing can go.
The effect is to produce far more space on the pitch. More space means fewer head on collisions. It will also mean the size of players will change. The heavyweights won’t have so many narrow channels in which to hide their lack of speed. Look at sevens.
The authorities must then supplement this change by reducing the amount of replacements to one, only to be used in the event of injury. Yes, I know people will cheat around that, but the benefits far outweigh the downside. Teams will no longer be able to pick beefed up smashers safe in the knowledge they can bring on another piece of heavy machinery for the final 20 minutes.
It means that all the players will have to be able to play a full 80 minutes. Again that means some players will have to change their body shape and lose muscle weight. You don’t see many top 5000 metre runners bulging with upper body muscle. We will edge back to a time when New Zealand University teams could compete with the big bombers because they could run them around the park in the final quarter of the game.
And thirdly, I would restrict sides to one coach, not least because this is about to become a financial necessity. The combination of Covid and the future reality of litigation means that rugby is going to have to massively cut its costs. How delightful, say I, because at the moment we are coaching the hell out of the game.
‘In this area of the pitch, you will box kick. In this area you will kick long. In this area we will take it into contact. In this area we will loop behind the pod.’ Yawn. Players will have to think more for themselves and that will improve the spectacle.
Bill Beaumont and Brett Gosper and the rest of World Rugby had better wake up fast to the coming reality or they will be swept away. They will be swept away by lawsuits and they will be swept away by a public that will no longer swallow a second-rate product.
The former England hooker George Chuter said a couple of years ago; “The human body can’t take that sort of punishment and come away scot-free. If you want to get to the top level you’ve got to make sacrifices. And it’s not just your time, or a bag of chips – it’s sacrificing your long‑term health. You want to have that time in the sun. But unfortunately it’s a deal with the devil.”
TJ Perenara is as brave as they come, but he’s not prepared to do that deal. He says of Super Rugby Aotearoa; “I just don’t think the way it’s structured at the moment is sustainable.”
He could be talking of the whole of rugby. I had coffee with a mate on Monday and he was telling me about his young nephew, a flanker, brave as a lion, and already with two concussions at the age of 12. We just can’t go on like that. We have to change the game of rugby or lives will be ruined and this great sport of ours will perish.