It’s impossible to follow rugby these days and not be confronted by the emotional and hyperbolic on a daily basis, or even (if you’ll excuse the hyperbole) the apocalyptic. Physio rooms overflowing with the bodies and groans of the stricken, clubs losing money like blood from the jugular, otherworldly score-lines against once-mighty teams brought low by politics and economics, concussion, the desolation after rugby for former professionals, the inhuman demands on current ones, the continual writing and rewriting of laws as bewildered administrators struggle to keep up. The constant noise as everyone shrieks.
But what exactly is it that we’re all saying? Because there’s one logical conclusion to which all this noise is building, even if no one will ever come out and say it. There’s only one way to stop concussion, one way to prevent injury, to stop losing money, stop being thrashed by the only team left that’s any good, to stop all the noise.
And that is to stop playing rugby.
For all the fears in the game expressed on a daily basis, this is the ultimate, and we’re hurtling towards it as the only logical step left. As we sift through the current body count in English rugby, for example, the lack of fresh ideas for what to do about it stands out.
We’re running out of them, partly because every attempt to address a situation has so many unintended consequences. This season’s law changes were brought in, variously, to help attacking teams, to stop inferior ones playing silly buggers with the ruck off-side line, to reduce the risk of players being kicked in the head, to ensure cleaner ball from the scrum. All sound, and so far all successful. But now we’re attributing to these the latest injury crisis. The dream of increased ball-in-play time, of a dynamic, attack-minded sport is being undone by the inherent attrition rate that comes with it.
Likewise with the great player welfare question. The English clubs are portrayed as the devil here, while ridiculed for losing so much money. Certainly, the peremptory arrogance with which they make announcements like that of the 10-month season without so much as mentioning it to anyone beforehand is sickening, but let’s not forget, either, where they’re coming from.
They lose money because they’re footing the bill for the very players we want to protect. They lose (or perhaps we should say invest) money because of the amount they pump into local communities, changing cultures and developing future playing stocks from which hallowed institutions like the Lions, so often held up as the noble counterpoint to their dirty ways, will draw with alacrity.
Entertainment versus injury, revenue generation versus spiralling wage bills, everywhere we turn there are conflicts in rugby trying to reconcile themselves, while the rest of us scream and shout. But let’s be careful what we shout for. If we don’t learn to live with rugby’s imperfections, someone somewhere in this politically correct age might take the sport away from us altogether.