Collision, discipline, concussion, recklessness, brawn, strength, fitness and commitment; a stream of consciousness flooding the rugby world after an injury prone Six Nations and a heated couple of weeks in the Premiership.
There have been several controversial debates over the “reckless” behaviour of players on the pitch. The debate initially began when Wasps forward Nathan Hughes was suspended on a three-week match ban for an incident that left Northampton and Wales wing George North unconscious with concussion.
On Friday Hughes successfully appealed this decision. The panel ruled that “no act of foul play took place” after an audio recording between the referee and TMO was played.
Craig Maxwell- Keys who was refereeing that night has said, “having viewed the replays I believed that by placing his boot/leg into this position after a try had already been scored he was being reckless and running a risk in terms of player safety.” This was totally the wrong decision, in my view, as the clash was accidental. If anything Hughes was trying to slow himself down to avoid the clash happening. Not only did the game turn on its head that night resulting in Wasps’ losing but Hughes also missed Wasps’ 32-18 defeat by Toulon.
Last night another forward was in the spotlight in the form of Saracens Billy Vunipola. The England number eight had pleaded not guilty of striking Leicester’s Mathew Tait with his head. Following video footage played at the panel Vunipola’s panel was dismissed and he will be free to play again. This means he won’t miss out on this weekends’ European Champions Cup semi-final at Clermont Auvergne.
Central to the majority of these issues has been recklessness. The six nations provided an unwanted reminder of the dangers rugby players face on a match-by-match basis. “I look at rugby now and it’s just brutal”, former England centre Damian Hopley told the Guardian, “it’s becoming so collision- based.”
In many ways the attempts to change the rules to make rucks, mauls and scrummaging safer for the players, the dangers have been taken elsewhere. These collision points and ‘restart’ areas used to be much more a trial of strength and a bit of a ‘free-for all’. It meant that they were more dynamic areas and that play around them was looser. Now they are very much ‘set pieces’. A ball is taken to ground and it is protected. The defence set their guards and the attack prepare to launch their huge forwards directly at the man in the way of a yardage gain.
Rugby Union, which at it’s outset was very much a contact sport with the focus on elusive running, timely passing and moving the ball away from contact has now become an impact sport with head on collisions. It’s business as usual however for the modern player who spends more time in the gym developing dynamic strength than he does on the pitch working on running and passing.
Another worrying development is the ‘choke’ tackle. The change in approach that says if a player takes the ball into contact and is held up so that a maul ensues it will be the defending side that wins the ball if the maul does not quickly return the ball back to play. This has resulted in professional players hitting tackles high in a bid to stop the man, seal the ball and hold him up. This produces all manner of facial and head injuries, as collisions are inevitable. Gone are the days of ‘go low, cheek to cheek’ safe tackling as it should be. In its place are reckless high (albeit legal) tackles that endanger both the tackler and the ball carrier.
As concussion and player safety continues to be a key issue the spotlight is ever more on match officials to effectively control the game and protect the players; but the clubs undoubtedly have a major role to play.
The case of brain vs brawn is one that is going to continue to be brought up as more collision injuries occur on the pitch. The beep test and the maximum single rep seem to be more important than the side step and deft pass when assessing ability. Taking players out of the gym and back onto the rugby pitch might help to introduce a different skill to the game something that would require more of the defence than the ability to take a punch and get up again.
In a bid to de-power the collision points to protect the ever more powerful and athletic participants has the problem not just been moved to other parts of the game away from the set piece? Let us know what you think using @InTheLoose to continue the debate.