Sunday, October 01, 2023

Does professional rugby union have a future?

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This summer London Irish followed Worcester and Wasps to become the third Premiership to drop out of the league because of financial problems.

Last week Jersey Reds, who play in the second tier and are one of the English game's success stories of recent years, announced they had 'ceased trading' and that liquidation is inevitable unless new funding can be found.

Yet this financial crisis may not be the most serious threat rugby union faces. It may be that professionalism has made the game too dangerous.

Gavin Francis has reviewed Sam Peters' Concussed: Sport's Uncomfortable Truth in the London Review of Books.

Francis begins by reminding us how fragile the human brain is:

The human brain​ is softer than tofu, squishier than a jellyfish, slightly more robust than toothpaste. Brain surgeons tend not to use scalpels because the substance they work on is too delicate; instead they use ultrasound and suction probes, using breaths of air to suck away diseased bits of matter.

He then describes how the professionalisation of the game in 1995 has changed the size and speed of international players in the men's game. In the late 1980s the average player in the New Zealand rugby union squad weighed around 92kg. By 2019, South Africa’s national team weighed in at an average of 102 kg, and its forwards at an average of 118kg.

The former England team doctor Phil Batty is quoted:

"Rugby is a collision sport and you cannot deny there has been an increase in injuries. It used to be that the forwards wouldn’t be quick enough to catch the backs but now, with greater emphasis on fitness training, they are and then you can get serious collisions. That, in very simple terms, is what has happened to club rugby."

Sam Peters worked for many years at the Mail on Sunday, where he started a campaign to change the game’s rules to give players better protection from concussion. Concussed is the story of that campaign, as well as an account of the transformation of professional men’s rugby from a contact sport played by big men into a collision sport played by giants.

Let's leave the last word to Chris Nowinski, a former wrestler and  neuroscientist, who is the co-founder of Boston University’s centre for the study of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy - a condition first diagnosed in boxers in the 1930s).

He too has mounted a sustained campaign to raise awareness of the dangers of repeated concussions, and he says:

"The only people in the world who reject our findings are medics employed by sports bodies."

The game has begun to change, though Gavin Francis says the safeguards in rugby are not as strong as in boxing. And it's noticeable at this rugby world cup that whenever a player is punished after a striking an opponent's head, the pundits always take his part.

So does professional rugby union have a future? Even if its current financial problems are overcome, is it just too dangerous for the players?

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