Whenever a high-profile player retires early from rugby, we have a spike in hand-wringing about how dangerous, how brutal, how inherently flawed the game is. This is understandable. It is not even unwelcome, insofar as spikes can make valid points all the more sharply.
But spikes, too, are misrepresentative. Don’t believe the spike.
Rugby has not become more dangerous because Sam Warburton retired last week. He is far from the first sportsman to retire before 30. He is far from the most battered rugby player. He played 70 league matches for Cardiff. In other words, fewer than he played Tests for Wales. Thierry Dusautoir played 266 times in the French league; Chris Robshaw is on 179 in the English and counting. Sometimes we just have to accept that a player’s body cannot take the strain.
It has been pointed out that Warburton played most of his career a stone or two heavier than was his natural weight. This must have placed strain on his body. This was also his decision.
Rugby does have serious issues, of course, and is trying to address them. Listen to the white noise behind the spikes for a more accurate assessment. Laws are constantly being tweaked, some of them wisely, some of them irresponsibly.
The latest announcement that a new legal-tackle height is to be trialled among the Championship clubs is welcome – and, as long maintained by Sport500, much preferable to a wanton increase in red cards. But don’t go thinking it will fix all the injuries, or even more than just a few.
Most of rugby’s tweaks are designed to protect the ball-carrier from concussion, yet we know that the tackler is two-and-a-half times likelier to be concussed. Tacklers are on a hiding to nothing these days. They’re the ones who have to amend their technique; they’re the ones who are sent off if they fail; they’re the ones who cop most of the concussions anyway. Why would anyone be a tackler? Trouble is, we can tweak the laws as much as we like to protect the ball-carrier, but you can’t protect the tackler.
Unless, of course, you tell him not to tackle. And so we return to the eternally looping whisper behind the spikes, behind even the white noise behind that.
You can’t protect rugby players unless you tell them not to play.
This is the apocalyptic scenario that is building more steadily than people think. It would be anathema to millions. Which brings us back to the question of choice. Warburton chose to play rugby, he chose to extend his body beyond its comfort zone, and his place in the pantheon is secure. He couldn’t do it for ever.
But law suits are on their way, if developments in America are anything to go by. Rugby, like all contact sports, is going to have to consider the signing of waivers for its players. Make it official that to play is their choice. There is no adult playing today who would not sign.
Michael Aylwin’s novel about the future of sport, Ivon, is out now