Rugby’s autumn internationals are almost upon us and dark thoughts hover over lovers of the sport. One day soon a professional rugby player will die playing the game. The players are fitter, bigger, stronger, faster and too powerful and it is no longer a 15-man game. It is a 23-man game: more than half the team gets replaced so the intensity and impact never subsides. Rule changes around the breakdown to encourage attack have had the opposite effect, meaning that defences line up across the pitch, no space is created and every game is 80 minutes of unsustainable collisions. Seasons go on longer, players get no rest and they keep smashing into each other. The vogue for double tackling — one goes low, one high — to prevent the offload means that a conventionally sized standoff, like Quins’ Marcus Smith, could have two 130kg giants coming at him at the same time. Unpleasant.
Already several marquee names have been lost for the early part of the season, like Lions George North and Ben Te’o, Jack Nowell, Billy Vunipola, and Manu Tuilagi as well as countless others. Clubs won’t be able to sustain this — they can’t afford the squad size, and they will send players back on who were taken off for being unconscious. Referees can’t always keep up. Clermont’s French international scrum-half Morgan Parra was unconscious after a collision during the weekend European Cup clash with Northampton but later came back on. That should not have been allowed.
Is professional rugby heading for some sort of Armageddon? This is a tougher game than the American NFL because it is more fluid, with players working in attack and defence. Look at the size of the La Rochelle team: no titches in there, just behemoths. Something fairly catastrophic is inevitable.
Media talk about hits and collisions and taking contact and impact doesn’t help either. It is all so macho. No one is trying to limit rugby as a sport of fierce contact. But what happened to finding space and passing the ball before you are smashed? A scrum cap isn’t going to help much, either.
Watford’s dedicated bruiser of a centre forward Troy Deeney and Australia’s pugilistic vice-captain David Warner are strange bed-fellows, but that’s sport for you. Deeney, who admits he’s not pretty but is willing to do the ugly things on the pitch, gave a breathtaking press conference the other day after he helped Watford beat a rather supine Arsenal 2-1. Deeney, who came on with the home side 1-0 down, said: ‘Whenever I play Arsenal, I think… let me whack the first one and see who wants it… who’s up for the challenge. And I felt today that none of them were.’ It’s a brusque and robust approach but not unwelcome in these days of interminable cross-field passing. It reflects the not infrequent impression that Arsenal players would be happier discussing the films of Andrei Tarkovsky or the philosophy of Kierkegaard than actually getting stuck in.
Warner has got some of the more po-faced commentators hot under the collar after some standard trash-talking ahead of the Ashes. ‘As soon as you step on that line it’s war. You try to get into a battle as quick as you can. You have to delve deep into yourself to get some sort of hatred about them when you’re out there,’ he said. Admittedly, it’s not Neville Cardus, but it’s the sort of sentiment that Douglas Jardine would have understood. Cricket is the most gladiatorial of sports and I cannot think of many of England’s Ashes team who would not be getting equally worked up reading Warner’s words. If Ben Stokes were going, I would actually fear for the Aussie’s safety. Warner has since rowed back a bit in a marvellous piece of nonsense: ‘I probably regret some of the words I used,’ he said. Well, we’ll probably find out come December.