Crediting the crunch?

Thomas Wills - Sports Reporter 26 October 2009

About the time that you’re reading this, the finest of the Southern hemisphere will be packing their mouth guards and short shorts, preparing for the Autumn Tests. Next month we’ll see Australia, Argentina and the All Blacks facing the best team that England can field. And there’s the crucial distinction.

Injuries have severely depleted the ranks of players that Martin Johnson will be looking to make up his team for Australia on November 7th. Just this week former captain Phil Vickery and the bull-like Andy Sheridan have been added to the ever-lengthening injury list: both of them Lions tourists without whom the England pack begins to look a touch flimsy, and certainly not the force that so effectively dominated Australia in the 2007 World Cup. Consider as well Toby Flood, Tom Rees, Harry Ellis and Delon Armitage, all great young talents, all fixtures in Johnson’s squad and all out with injury.

You may very well wonder how all this is relevant. Injuries have always been part of sport, and especially a sport like rugby. An established player is injured, or a young prospect can’t shake off injuries and they’re released by the club. It’s not nice and fair, but it’s how it works.

However, the injury situation is getting out of hand, with more injuries simply the result of big hits between the weighty brutes that dominate today’s pitches.

┬áTen years ago an injury such as Gethin Jenkins’ cracked cheekbone on the Lions South Africa tour would have been far more newsworthy – in the summer it barely inspired a mention.

Players simply spend more time in the gym and reap the benefits of advanced nutritional understanding; it follows that they are bigger, fitter, stronger and heavier than the previous generation.

So what can be done? You can’t very well lock the gym door or try to impose some kind of weight limit.

One touted solution has been to employ pads in the style of NFL, something that would meet with strong opposition from the purists and, to me at least, would seem to represent a step towards the pantomime of American football.

What rugby needs is a change of culture. The game is going to have to alter its focus, concentrating upon the skill and tactics that made it what is was before Jonah Lomu came along, ploughed through defensive line after defensive line, and changed our understanding of what it is to be a rugby player.

This revolution must start at club level, coaches emphasising that to evade a tackle is superior to just ploughing through it, and thereby nurturing a game that relies more on speed, subtlety and anticipation than sheer strength and bloody-mindedness.

Such a change wouldn’t just benefit the players and their battered frames, but it would also make for a more entertaining game for the spectator, with less kicking for territory and more scope for talented backs to run at a defensive line.

Which, in the end, must be the gold standard to which the sport aspires.

Thomas Wills – Sports Reporter