Putting it all on the line

Lead.jpgAs rugby literally grows the concerns are often about styles, but with players risking their health the debate must quickly become about mental and physical substance, writes Ewan MacKenna

Early in their climb to the summit of boxing, Don King decided he wanted a piece of Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko. Inviting them to his mansion to try and sell a deal, he soon realised the best way was to appeal to their intelligence so, he headed for the piano in the corner of the living room, sat down, and tucked into an incredible rendition of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Stunned, the brothers were fortunate enough to investigate and upon closer inspection found the instrument to be self-playing. They immediately got out before putting pen near any paper, although endless others from Ali through to Tyson and onto Lewis weren’t as lucky, losing chunks of their life’s earnings.

While King has long been seen as the czar of boxing corruption, his job has itself long been seen the height of sporting exploitation. But you’ve to wonder when does rugby creep into the conversation as players put their health on the line and for what? Glory? Moderate money? What we see now is the best of their lives, but more and more it’s being traded against the standard of the rest of their lives. All in all, it’s entering the amoral realms that the sweet science still occupies.

Just last week, a friend came into the local looking the worse for wear. It was assumed a trip to Portugal had gotten the better of him but between airport and bar he’d fitted in an afternoon of rugby. A former out-half in his early 30s, it was merely a summer throw-around with group not long out of school. “But it’s not like it used to be with us, these guys don’t leave the gym,” he said. “Six days a week they’re in there as they know if they want to play, they’ve to be beasts.”

This was at the bottom of the rung, a club in the Leinster League Division 2B, yet even there extreme power is what matters most. After all, it’s a sport where grinding through with size rather than going around with skill has meant brute force is the most important aspect. But from the gutter to the penthouse, the size and the effects of that size are exponential.

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Thus, the beginning and end to Leinster’s season have been terrifyingly fitting, a microcosm of what goes on particularly at the elite end of the sport. Concussed in their season-opening game, neurologists told Kevin McLaughlin his 31-year-old brain shouldn’t take any more. Suffering a neck injury in the season-closing finale, doctors told Luke Fitzgerald his body couldn’t take any more. Two more players squeezed for every inch of their health in the name of brutal victory.

In his autobiography, the insightful Bernard Jackman recalled what rugby had done to him. Concussions were obviously the greatest worry considering many experts dislike the term and opt for the more graphic but real idea of a brain injury, but there was a longer list including bad knees and “stingers” which cause temporary loss of feeling in his arm. Yet the Carlow native finished up in 2010 and since then the sport has grown still more – further and further beyond what we are designed for.

As Dr Barry O’Driscoll, a second cousin of Brian and one-time medical committee member of the IRB told this newspaper: “There will be a reservoir of players from the last 20 years whose symptoms aren’t going to appear for another 10 years. Do we wait for that to happen and let players play in the present with no real changes or do something about that now?”

But rugby carries on, exploiting its greatest asset. Sure they make their own choices, but the ruling body should also have a responsibility beyond those players’ choices.

Consider the shift across the 21 years of the professional game and what that means in scientific reality. Looking back at film of the late Jonah Lomu in his pomp, there’s still an exhilaration in watching his six-foot-five, 119-kilo frame on the charge. However had he come along at the latest World Cup he’d barely have stood out. There, JP Pietersen was six-foot-three and 106 kilos; Wales had George North at six-foot-four and 109 kilos beside Alex Cuthbert at six-six and 106 kilos; Samoa’s Tuilagi’s brothers averaged 120-kilos a pop; France’s Mathieu Bastareaud stood at just six feet but 123 kilos; and Fiji wing Nemani Nadolo is six-feet-four and 125 kilos. Alex Dunbar would have been there for Scotland too but for injury, a 102-kilo centre who’s been clocked scoring tries at 21-miles-per hour, just a couple short of Usain Bolt’s average across the track.Sexton.jpg

Little surprise then that internationals in 2015 were weighing in 10 per cent heavier than they did in 2000 and had upped their 10-metre sprint time by five per cent. And while it all sounds so impressive and adds to the awe, while rugby often enjoys uses war terminology that now extends beyond the final whistle. Soon there’ll be a long line of veterans who’ve done their duty and, no longer of use, will be forgotten and left to suffer.

They call all of this the evolution of the players’ bodies but in terms of the effects, it’s devolution. How can bigger forces travelling at higher speeds be a step forward given the sickly results. But there are those in the game who will see this line as an attack, an effort to undermine what they love, but only those on the outside seem to care about what’s creeping around the corner.

A couple of years back, New Zealand researchers placed chips in gum-shields to record the impacts players were being met with. On occasion they went beyond 125g, compared with the 6g Formula One drivers deal with, albeit it across hours rather than milliseconds. Other collisions in pro era came up at the equivalent levels of a 60-mile-per-hour car crash. It’s why a 2014 study by the Rugby Players Association in England saw two players per club retiring injured each season, double the number from five years earlier. Meanwhile the concussion ratio has a one-way trend too with 6.7 per 1,000 playing hours in 2013 up from 3.1 in 2006.

Of course it’s led to many headline cases in recent years like Cardiff wing Rory Watts-Jones going for tests after both his family and girlfriend noticed worrying behavioral changes that are believed to have been brought about by repeated head trauma. Last summer, Gloucester’s Andy Hazell could take no more after admitting that he’d “see stars” in training. Former Wales international Jonathan Thomas has had to quit after developing epilepsy. And still, in the last World Cup Jamie Cudmore lined out for Canada against Ireland after “all kinds of symptoms: headaches, being very irritable, tired when you shouldn’t be tired, then being really tired and not being able to sleep”.

But those are the sharp tip of the iceberg as, while experts speculate as to what’s next, the sport itself ignores what’s next. Instead it continues to exploit both bodies and minds as we go on through a disaster that’s unfolding and somehow being allowed to unfold.

Sunday Business Post
3 July, 2016

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3 comments

  1. Cathal · · Reply

    Fine article Ewan but what about solutions to these issues?
    What would you like to happen for rugby to improve. I would have thought that would have been a logical next step in this article but no mention.
    Should the laws of the game change? If so, Which and why? Should refereeing of certain areas of the game change? Again which and why?

  2. Yawn! Did you get a bang on the head? You’re beginning to repeat yourself…

  3. Christopher Stone · · Reply

    It should be obvious to anyone who has participated in high level competitive sports (as I have) that the issue at hand is not just bigger athletes but bigger athletes “jacked up” on steroids. There really isn’t a need for exhaustive steroid testing…just open your eyes…normal “non-jacked up” athletes simply do not look like the freaks that currently populate every sport in the world. From amateur rugby to professional golf (Hello, Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy,) to the American NFL. To be successful in current sports almost requires one to “supplement” one’s training with some sort of performance enhancing drugs. The long term impact (literally) on the brains and bodies of those who participate in contact sports will be World War I style horrific. The question is: what can be done? Everyone, from Sunday league amateur to international competitor, wants the competitive edge, yet with PED’s so wide spread, a significant edge becomes difficult to obtain, thus PED’s become a requirement just to participate (in some sports, at any level.) The answer to all this will remain challenging as long as individuals believe a competitive advantage can be obtained through “supplements.” In contact sports, perhaps weight limits for competitors would indirectly result in players limiting their “fitness regimens.” Longer term, the answer lies in the fans rejecting the entertainment value of a sport played by pharmaceutical freaks who destroy the minds and bodies of other freaks. In my mind much of sport has already devolved into such an unattractive spectacle; even golf and tennis, to a large degree, have devolved into games in which skill, tactics, and guile can be, for the most part, overwhelmed by a combination of brute force and so called “fitness.”

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