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Rugby's big beast problem is spiralling out of control

Simon BarnesFebruary 12, 2015
Players are getting stronger, faster and fitter © Getty Images

As the Six Nations tournament gets into its stride, it becomes clear that the greatest skill a coach requires is the management of injuries. It's not about clever tactics or motivation or deciding whether to play this sort of game or that sort of game. It's all about having a Plan B in place, one that can go smoothly into operation the instant a player gets crocked.

And a Plan C, and a Plan D. Because if you haven't got these things, you'll find yourself left behind at the start. That sort of planning was at the heart of England victory over Wales last weekend, and it's the question asked of Wales as they go into their match against Scotland in Edinburgh this weekend.

Stuart Lancaster, the England head coach, won the match against Wales with his Plan Z. It was a victory that caught many people by surprise. Very few people had expected that England side to put up a decent show when faced with an injury list that was close to making a very fair team all by itself.

Rugby must modernise itself or tackle itself into unsustainability

For Wales, the story was slightly different. They had a key player - insofar as such a term can be admitted - injured against England, and yet he stayed on the pitch. George North played on after suffering two, separate blows to the head. He has been going through the return-to-play protocol after concussion and has been rested for the Scotland match as a safety precaution, much to his disgruntlement.

Of late, concussion has become a much bigger issue in rugby union and in many other dangerous sports. Quite right too. We've got used to seeing bloodless head injuries as a comic thing: a cheap form of anaesthetic, any cowboy film will tell you that.

But it's not actually all that amusing. To suffer concussion can be to undergo permanent damage to your brain and, as Woody Allen said, "that's my second favourite organ". I've concussed myself three times after unscheduled dismounts from horses: it's not something you laugh off. If you play on, you risk further and more serious damage, and you are less capable than normal of assessing situations and making proper decisions.

So medical staff pitch-side will have access to those rather harrowing slow-motion moments when you see what really happened in a collision, allowing them to make faster and more accurate assessments of a player's condition.

This is a good thing because rugby union is becoming more dangerous with every passing season. In the past three years instances of concussion have gone up three times. This reflects an increasing problem, but also an increasing awareness of the problem.

George North took two blows to the head before going off against England © Getty Images

Many thought union should not go professional in 1995, when it did, or at any other time: fearing that once people started to play for money, they would play with too much intensity and make the game impossibly violent.

That's not precisely what's happened. The players aren't more vicious but they're a great deal bigger, stronger, faster and fitter; in other words, they are infinitely more capable of doing each other damage. Modern players can work all day in the gym as well taking in lashings of high-protein muscle-building food.

Forwards turn themselves into human wrecking-balls, the backs are such a size that they would all have been forwards a few years back, and lissom elusive runners belong to the deep past. It was once rugby's pride that people of all shapes and sizes could find a role in the game: now it's a game about size.

The backs need muscle, not only to make tackles, often against forwards, but as a kind of organic armour, to withstand violent challenges - and remember that in rugby union, much of the violence is legal and an essential part of the game.

It's my belief that rugby union at the elite level is becoming close to unmanageable. With scrums, rucks, mauls and all the complex struggles that take place at the breakdown, it's impossible to see what's going on and therefore to control. The laws are close to incomprehensible even to the players; I was given a book called something like The Laws of Rugby Union Made Simple and I didn't understand a word of it.

So in these hidden but wholehearted collisions there is increasing potential for injury. Rugby league coped with professionalism by reducing the number of men on the pitch and making sure that almost all violent acts were readily available for inspection. American football did so by adding protective clothing and - crucially - cutting down on fixtures: a regular season involves just 16 games, and no player is on the field throughout.

It seems to me that rugby must modernise itself or tackle itself into unsustainability. Cutting down on the number of games is the easiest way to do this, and perhaps the most effective when it comes to such things as duty of care. A league season involves 22 games, with cup matches on top of that. I'm inclined to think that's too many for the human frame to cope with. Lancaster's injury list seems to bear me out.

But as Lord Kitchener of Khartoum said, we don't wage war as we would like to, we wage war as we must. Something of that is true for any coach in any sport. The task of Lancaster and his fellow coaches in the Six Nations is to cope with rugby union as it is. When it comes to injuries, you don't cross your fingers and hope for the best. You plan, and you keep planning: down to Plan Omega and beyond. It's no longer a 15-man game or anything like.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd

Writer Bio

Simon Barnes was Chief Sports Writer at The Times and UK Sports Columnist of the Year in 2001 and 2007. He writes about a wide variety of sports for, as well as and ESPNcricinfo. He has written more than 20 books including The Meaning of Sport and three novels. On Twitter he is @simonbarneswild

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