🔒 RW Johnson: Springbok mania obscures real question – will rugby itself be abolished?

By RW Johnson

There has been considerable self-satisfaction in South Africa since the Springboks’ victory in the Rugby World Cup, with many newspaper articles happily speculating that the country might win the Webb Ellis trophy again in 2027. This is all harmless enough – but it would be sensible to realise that the game of rugby is in some trouble and that things probably cannot continue as they are.

The problem actually surfaced first in soccer where it was realised that an inordinately large number of retired soccer players were suffering from dementia. The key point was that soccer is a contact sport and that many players had suffered repetitive head injuries. In particular, forwards who frequently headed the ball were prone to develop dementia, often at a surprisingly young age.

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Not really surprising when one considers the powerful and repeated blows to the head caused by heading a football coming at you fast and often from angles up to 180 degrees. Just recall what similar blows to the head did to Muhammad Ali, a magnificent specimen as a young man but already forced to retire at 42 with Parkinson’s syndrome, a condition which can result from head trauma from violent physical activities. It was estimated that during his career Ali had taken some 200,000 punches to the head.

Head injuries are, of course, only one of the risks of physical injury that any player of contact sports has to endure. But the issue comes up in any of the major contact sports – soccer, boxing, wrestling, judo, rugby union, rugby league, Australian rules football, American football etc.. Of these, some are not just contact sports but collision sports in which the spectators watch with fascination to see how large and powerful men, often with great bursts of speed, can cope with the impact of repeated full-on collisions with other similar-sized men. (One says “men” but already there is enough data to show that women’s rugby can be just as lethal.)

Read more: Making rugby safer through science and protocols: Understanding and managing concussions in contact sport

Let us be frank about what we are watching. These collision sports are in a direct line of descent from the gladiatorial contests of old. The gladiators – usually slaves and often prisoners of war – would be physically trained and turned into pure fighting machines. If they were successful they would be rewarded, sometimes even gaining their freedom. But if they remained gladiators, they would inevitably be killed as they aged and easily replaced by a successor generation – for they were completely expendable. This remains the archetype for most collision sports. Take American football. The top men often weigh 100-120 kg, can do 100 metres in 11 seconds and charge at one another wearing steel helmets. Even the average player earns around $1 million a year. But meet up with them a few years on. They are all carrying long-term injuries and living on painkillers. In effect, they have been highly paid for a few years in return for submitting to life-shortening injuries. Like the luckier gladiators, they have their freedom but they don’t have much of a life ahead of them. 

Rugby union is not that different. The key moment was 1995 when the game went professional. At that point the average New Zealand player weighed 92kg. But in the new era TV audiences wanted to see the game at its most explosive and thus with the greatest collisions. Immediately the truth of the old adage that “ a good big ‘un will always beat a good small ‘un” was recognised. Players bulked up, became bigger, heavier and, thanks to now full-time professional training, faster and more lethal. The result, inevitably, was an increase in injuries – which doubled between 1993 and 1997. Already by the 1995 World Cup the biggest drawcard was the gigantic Jonah Lomu – 6 foot 5 inches, 119 kg and running 100 metres in under 11 seconds. Lomu was a physical freak – and died only 20 years later – but what the crowds really paid to see was the epic collisions created when Lomu just ran right over opponents – perhaps most famously against England’s Rory Underwood. The clip of that horrendous collision was shown over and over again. Nobody much bothered to notice that Underwood, although England’s all-time record try-scorer, retired from the game shortly thereafter. Playing David against Goliath may have worked out OK in the bible but normally it won’t and Underwood paid the price.. 

The new era was marked by a tremendous rise in the number of collisions. In international matches in 1987 there were 94 tackles per match. By 1995 there were 113 and by 2003 there were 189. Great plaudits were showered upon, say, the All Blacks because they might put together an 18-phase move but in practice 16 or 17 of those phases would involve a player gathering the ball and charging head-on into a group of opposing players. Instead of flowing, open rugby we got more and more crash-bash rugby. Because TV audiences liked winners and games were more often won by a set of big heavy forwards who could keep up the crash-bash stuff until opponents were utterly worn down. Quite quickly one noticed that if you talked to famous old ex-Springboks they would all tell you that nowadays they’d never make the team: they weren’t big enough or heavy enough..

Read more: Rugby’s new coaching era: From referee to physio, unconventional paths reshape the game

It is elementary that the greater the weight involved and the greater the speed of impact, the more damage a collision will do. Already it is certain that the increase in size, weight and speed of rugby players since 1995, plus the large increase in the number of tackles/collisions, must inevitably result in far more injuries including life-altering maladies such as dementia. Of course, professionalism means that the players will to some extent be better financially rewarded for submitting to this but it is not clear that this is a bargain worth making and certainly many parents are likely to steer their children away from rugby as the price it exacts in long-term injuries becomes increasingly apparent.

For the moment, however, the game is still enjoying the adrenalin rush produced by the professional era. A somewhat macabre pleasure is expressed by dwelling on the sheer physical heft of some of the giants who now play the game – and the damage they can do. Thus, for example, the UK online rugby site, Ruck.co.uk, sizes up Eben Etzebeth: “At 6 foot 8 inches and 280 pounds Eben Etzebeth must scare the shit out of his own family”. Ruck adds that Etzebeth is also so strong that he needs his own maxi-size dumbells with which to exercise. Ruck names him, indeed, as the fifth-strongest rugby player in the world.

Coaches have understood that ultimately games are likely to be won by having the most fearsome forwards – hence the prevalence of crash and bash. The Springbok coach, Rassie Erasmus, has carried this even a phase further with his notorious “bomb squad” – almost a whole new scrum of forwards to be brought on at half-time. Equally large, heavy and ferocious as those they replace, these fresh new forwards can exert overwhelming physical pressure on the opposing team. Again, Erasmus has stretched this to the very limit by dividing his eight substitutes as much as 7:1 in favour of these fresh new forwards. The fact that Erasmus has now won two World Cups in a row shows the world that such tactics undoubtedly work..By 2019 the Springboks weighed, on average, 102 kg and their forwards 118kg.. Comparing that with the 92kg that the 1995 All Blacks weighed shows one how much and how fast things have changed in the new professional era.

It seems inevitable that these changes will produce a huge toll in long-term injuries, perhaps particularly concussion-related. The result is bound to be a growing clamour for rule changes to diminish these dangers but it is hard to imagine that this will be successful. Just as you can’t imagine soccer without heading the ball, so how to imagine rugby without tackling ? Yet the alternative is for rugby to become like boxing, a sport of such violence and causing such obvious physical and mental damage that many shun it altogether. This could, indeed, be merely a way station en route to the abolition of rugby.

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