It was three weeks on from the World Cup final and the focus had switched to the Vodacom United Rugby Championship, but still the controversy remained the same and the focus remained the same. A red card and questions about refereeing and match officiating inconsistency.
It was this past Friday night and former Springbok loose-forward Warren Brosnihan, in his role as a studio analyst at Supersport, sounded like he might just blow a gasket when he was speaking. But he said exactly what I was thinking: “Rugby cannot go on like this, it is going to switch people off the game.”
He wasn’t alone. Former Bok assistant and Emirates Lions head coach Swys de Bruin was in obvious agreement and said the game had been ruined by the red card shown to Vodacom Bulls co-captain Marcell Coetzee in their match against Edinburgh. A game ruined by a card? It’s become so commonplace it’s hardly a talking point anymore.
One of the main sticking points, like it was in the recent Rugby World Cup final, where so many neutrals couldn’t get why New Zealand captain Sam Cane saw red for his tackle on Jesse Kriel and Siya Kolisi only got yellow for what looked to many to be the exact same offence, was consistency.
DIFFERENCES BETWEEN INCIDENTS ARE SO MARGINAL
I could see the difference between those two incidents, but not in the Bulls/Edinburgh game, where if anything the Edinburgh No 8 Billy Mata’s tackle in the 73rd minute looked marginally more dangerous and perhaps even had more intent. Mata only got a yellow. Let me state my own view - I thought that according to the WR protocols, and that phrase ‘according to’ is the operative one as the law is an ass, they were both red.
The point is though that they looked the same, as the two incidents in the RWC final did, and if there was difference it was a matter of degrees, or millimetres. Intent seems to be irrelevant according to the laws of World Rugby so let’s say that the level of recklessness, which is really the buzzword around head contact incidents, was only determined by where contact was made.
So in other words you can be reckless but if the other player ducks or you just miss, then it is okay and you can carry on playing whereas another less lucky person gets to be banished.
It’s a mess, and it adds to other problems around cards that are ruining rugby, such as the ploy of playing a team into the corner and then forcing a yellow card with a succession of forward drives that incur technical infringements from the defending team. Which is what happened to the DHL Stormers in Limerick the next day.
Brosnihan was right, De Bruin was right - rugby cannot go on like this, and it has arguably already gone on “like this” too long. I thought the calls were correct in the World Cup final, again “according to” the law, and I also reckon that had Cane not been sent off, the Boks might have won by more, but it is understandable that there are many who felt the red card sullied rugby’s showpiece event. Just like the Kwagga Smith sending off ruined a Super Rugby final when De Bruin was involved with the Lions as one of the coaches.
IT’S A HEADACHE THAT CANNOT BE IGNORED
But here’s the problem - 18 hours after watching the Bulls/Edinburgh game and hearing the views of Brosnihan and De Bruin, I was reading The Sunday Times (London version) and their big take-out on the 294 former professional and top amateur rugby players who will apply for a class action against rugby’s governing bodies next month.
A total of 268 players claim they were left with illnesses, including dementia and depression, because of repeated blows to the head. A further 26 are expected to join them by putting in similar claims.
One of the examples of a player impacted that was listed in the article by David Walsh “now suffers from headache; vertigo; fatigue; sleep disturbance; intolerance to noise; change in personality; difficulties with short-term memory; problems with learning; anxiety; depression, and emotional liability in the form of increased tearfulness and increased irritability.”
Shew. If that doesn’t make a prospective player think twice about taking up the game, what will? Apparently there has been waning participation in boxing since the impacts of so many punches to the head on mental wellness has become more publicised, and you can sympathise with World Rugby for thinking that the same could happen in rugby.
I am in agreement with another thing Brosnihan said on Friday night, where he reminded people when he played the game he was aware of the risks and was willing to take those risks. To me it makes no sense to sue a sport that is so obviously hard contact and based around collisions on the pretext you didn’t know there was risk. It was my own high sense of self-preservation more than anything else that prevented me from playing more rugby than I did when I was young.
But you can understand why World Rugby would be concerned about the impact the message being put out by the publicity around head injuries and the consequences of those injuries could have on participation in their sport. Not to mention the welfare of the players, who should really remain their responsibility after retirement.
A few months ago I wrote that the only way around the problem, given that rugby really can’t go on with the plethora of cards that impact big matches, was to introduce head gear. Functional head gear, something that apparently has yet to be invented, because in reading up on what we like to call American grid-iron, it seems the issue of brain injury is as big in that sport, where they do wear headgear, as it is in rugby union.
In fact it is mind-blowing to read that chronic traumatic encephalopathy was found in 345 of 376 deceased former NFL players’ brains by a study done by the Boston University CTE centre. What I found most interesting though in reading this up through wikipedia, is that “While much attention in the NFL has focused on limiting or treating concussions, the latest medical research indicates that the brain damage in CTE is from the cumulative impact of all collisions involving a player’s head”.
SWITCH TO PROFESSIONALISM EXACERBATED THE PROBLEM
In other words it isn’t necessarily the big one off clash with an opponent’s head that causes the problem, but the thousands of other smaller contacts taken not only during a game but in training. And here is the crux of the problem for those of us who recall that concussion was a reality when we played at school, and remember the name Henry Coxwell, the Natal flyhalf who opted to wear headgear after a series of concussions in the late 1980s, and wonder why it has become more of a talking point now: The switch to professionalism has made the playing of rugby a five or six day a week business for top players.
When I started covering rugby in the 1990s in Durban the Natal team was well supported and the sport was taken very seriously by both those who played it and watched it. But there were just two Natal practices a week, which took a maximum of just over two hours after the working day, plus a captain’s practice on the eve of a match which was obviously never a contact session.
That was when the sport was still amateur. Once it became professional, coaches felt they had to fill the week days where they had the players with them with training, and of course there is also more time for conditioning so players have naturally become bigger and more muscular. And the game has changed to the point where it is no longer just the forwards who are physical monsters, but backline players too.
WORLD RUGBY GUIDELINES SHOW AWARENESS
World Rugby were obviously made aware of this contributing factor to the increase in concussion cases because in 2021 they issued the following guidelines:
Full contact training: maximum of 15 minutes per week across a maximum of two days per week with Mondays and Fridays comprising zero full contact training to allow for recovery and preparation.
Controlled contact training: maximum of 40 minutes per week.
Live set piece training: maximum of 30 minutes set piece training per week is advised.
In explaining the guidelines, which were the product of extensive research, World Rugby Chief Executive Alan Gilpin said: “We believe that by moderating overall training load on an individualised basis, including contact in season, it is possible to enhance both injury-prevention and performance outcomes, which is good for players, coaches and fans.”
Are these guidelines being strictly observed? Who knows, the rugby media is no longer permitted to be present at every training session like I was by Ian McIntosh when he was coaching Natal three decades ago.
But while the per centage of contact and high intensity in a training week has been minimised, and you will no longer get the rather unaptly named considering this topic of discussion “koppestamp sessions” that were still in vogue at some SA rugby unions in the early 1990s, it is hard to imagine they are strictly adhered to.
There is just too much correction needed sometimes between games by coaches who have their livelihoods and futures depending on the result of the next games. Besides, to get ready for contact you also need to take contact, and it is hard to imagine for instance that Handre Pollard, after being off the playing field for so long, readied himself for his reintroduction to the playing side of it at a crucial stage of the World Cup by playing touch rugby.
FOCUS SHIFT TO THE TRAINING WEEK IS NECESSARY
Yet more focus on what is done in the training week, coupled with the work that is already being done on improved mouth guards and a more common sense approach by those impacted by concussion, is perhaps how rugby can save itself. By common sense, I reference someone like the former Stormers lock David Meihuizen, who was advised by his doctors that he shouldn’t play again and listened to that advice. Not everyone is that sensible.
Fortunately the focus on concussion, and the sensitivity to it from referees during a match, means that hopefully we have gone past the days when a player can play an entire game not knowing where he is. Or, as happened to me once back in the 1990s, you interview a Springbok captain after the game and his eyes are all over the place and he looks like he’s just been punched by Mike Tyson.
But when it comes to match day incidents around tackle height, the current wave of cards which turn rugby matches into unequal contests is doing as much damage to the sport, if not more, than the publicity around concussion. It doesn’t do the sport a service that cards dished out in a final remain a talking point so long afterwards and that they have such a big impact on the game.
Surely it is only a matter of time until World Rugby sees sense and brings in the 20 minute banishment and then you can be replaced system that has been trialled in some parts of the world. But that won’t necessarily have any impact on the rate of concussion and, concussion being the growing issue that it is, there’s a need to look for a solution that goes beyond just the games themselves.
My suggestion that rugby players wear headgear, tongue in cheek though it was, might have been far-fetched, but maybe it should be considered for all practice situations, as is the case when boxers are sparring.