Spectator sport

The terrible injury toll of modern rugby

20 October 2018

9:00 AM

20 October 2018

9:00 AM

Eddie Jones’s sorrows as England’s rugby coach certainly keep coming in big battalions. Now the giant battered No 8 Billy Vunipola is out of the autumn internationals, and maybe longer. His brother Mako is hurt too, along with Sam Simmonds, Jamie George, former skipper Chris Robshaw, Joe Marler (retired) as well as Uncle Tom Cobley, the noted back row forager. They won’t go away, though, these injuries.

How do you get people to want to excel at a game not where you ‘might’ get injured but ‘will’ get injured, probably badly? Rugby at school level is an excellent game. The best players representing lst XVs in the Schools Cup are likely to turn pro and earn a good living. The game they currently play is contested by physical specimens you or I would recognise, the likes of which played top-level rugby a few decades back — men like Mike Slemen, David Duckham, JPR, Jean-Pierre Rives, etc. And no one will get punched or stamped or gouged, because these activities have pretty much disappeared from all levels of the game. Anyway, now you can hurt people without them.

The pro game is played by behemoths who can spend all week in the gym and have their diets monitored and their supplements graded and tailored to their needs. They are bigger, stronger, faster than ever before. They have more time to train and improve, and the best are expected to play 35 to 40 high-intensity, high- impact and, yes, downright dangerous games a year. The best NFL players play no more than 20 games. I love the game, but rugby can’t survive like this. Can it? Pundits relish the ‘hits’, the ‘smashes’, the tackles that ‘body bag’ an opponent: think of the ground-shuddering collision when Jerome Kaino stopped Jamie Roberts in Toulouse’s tight win over Bath. Nobody died, for sure, but are you certain that will never happen?

Talking of legalised violence, I can’t imagine that readers of this journal have much knowledge of the octagon, the arena for cage fighting — sorry, mixed martial arts, as it likes to call itself. It is hard to convey the sheer ghastly brutality of this ‘sport’ — not to mention its followers. Now — surprise, surprise — Vladimir Putin, who likes to get himself front and centre of any passing sporting event, has met the Russian cage fighter Khabib Nurmagomedov after he beat Conor McGregor in a hideous brawl in Las Vegas. After the bout, mayhem broke out, with the Russian jumping out of the cage to belt all comers. Supporters of each fighter joined in and went berserk. Horribly unedifying.

Not for Putin, however, who said he had heard that McGregor’s camp had insulted Khabib’s father and his country. ‘Not just you, but all of us can jump out like that if assaulted,’ he said. Worth bearing in mind at the next confrontation with Russia in Estonia, or some such hellhole.

There are mistakes — like Bath’s Freddie Burns carrying on as if he were taking a bow at the Palladium before failing to touch down — and there are strange errors of judgment, like England deciding to play a series of one-day cricket internationals in Sri Lanka during the monsoon season. A quirky, even Trumpian, attitude to climate. Still, it gave us the chance to see Olly Stone bowl a few overs (very fast they were, too) and get an international wicket.

One correspondent to ESPN said that seeing the letters ‘RF’ next to an England bowler’s name brought a tear to the eye. Those of a certain vintage won’t need reminding that ‘RF’ is the shorthand used by publications such as the Playfair Cricket Annual to describe what bowlers do. ‘RF’ means right-arm fast: very rare for an English bowler. Usually it’s ‘RMF’ — medium fast. Welcome, Olly, and please don’t slow up.

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