Is rugby safe? It’s an endless argument. But debates aside for now, the fact is the amount of injuries we have seen in professional rugby alone in recent years has been staggering; and these are the elite, super-fit men and women who live breath and eat in order to be able to take on the physical demands of rugby.
We aren’t even seeing the statistics of Sunday league teams or indeed children’s rugby, where serious injuries are only likely to be more frequent and nursed to a lower standard.
In the professional eye, at it’s most tragic, there have been cases of people becoming paralysed and even passing away due to aspects of rugby – most frequently in scrums, but also through trivial tackles or devastatingly, an unavoidable slip during a game with poor weather conditions.
The impact of injuries can also be said to spoil the game due to general team performance. This has been the case in the Six Nations over the last couple of years, where it’s plausible to assume teams have won and lost the tournament simply as a result of avoiding or obtaining injuries.
Ireland (men’s) have been unluckier than most recently. After storming the Nations in 2014 and 2015, Ireland accumulated eight injuries before and into their 2016 campaign, then picking up numerous during the tournament itself. This ultimately saw their attempt to make history tarnished; though they still managed a very respectful third place.
Some of these injuries were small, some very serious. Either way, there’s a definite case to suggest that injuries are often dictating Rugby Union as we know it.
This has become more obvious over the Six Nations this year. Scrums are being meticulously scrutinised by referees, often slowing the game down in a bid to ensure a lack of force in scrummage and to maximise overall safety.
Tackling is also very strictly governed; there’s been a definite increase in yellow cards for dangerous tackling or conduct, to the extent that players are often too cautious of making big tackles in case they are penalized. This is also part of the reason why far more in-field kicking occurs in the game today, as the opposition are very unlikely to challenge a player catching the ball in case they are sent off for tackling in the air.
“The relatively minor knocks I’ve had still affect my health on a daily basis. Some of my muscles refuse to fire, my posture is terrible and my neck is constantly stiff”
These changes all make for a more restricted game, which is slower and less competitive, though undeniably safer. Having played rugby from the ages 7 – 19, I am evidence of a battered and bruised rugby boy. I’ve broken several bones, torn countless ligaments and faced so many concussions that I cannot actually remember how many I’ve had.
Over these 11 years of rugby, I can recall two occasions where an injury was severe enough for an ambulance to be called and the game abandoned, which is not a significant figure when compared with any contact sport. But these cases have been extreme, neck injuries or dislocations.
I remember when I fell on my wrist, I sat on the sidelines as it hurt too much to stay on the pitch, I then decided to let it rest for two days, only to eventually find that I had fractured it in two places.
“The governance of player safety in rugby is likely to always remain a highly contentious debate”
The relatively minor knocks I’ve had still affect my health on a daily basis. Some of my muscles refuse to fire, my posture is terrible and my neck is constantly stiff. You might ask why did I keep playing? My reply was always ‘I love the game’ and ultimately this is why imposing safety measures is often considered to ruin rugby as a sport.
I also remember being very annoyed at the ‘new’ rule (it was introduced when I was around 16) that said a concussed player had to rest for a number of weeks before they could legally play again, as this ruled me out of matches.
Looking back, do I regret playing? Absolutely not – it shaped who I’ve become, and earned me friendships and memories that’ll last a lifetime. Do I wish I hadn’t had rehabilitation on my foot, £100s spent on posture correction and physiotherapy appointments for the muscle in my lower back that still won’t fire? Well, yes, absolutely (props to the sports therapy clinic at David Ross, they’re a great help).
Will I want my children to love and play the game I’ve grown up in love with, before it’s altered by safety regulations? I can’t decide. The governance of player safety in rugby is likely to always remain a highly contentious debate.