Rucks and mauls

Wales’ exit from the 8th Rugby World Cup at the quarter-final stage was upsetting, to say the least, but there can be no blame attached to Warren Gatland or any of his players since almost an entire XV couldn’t play against South Africa because of serious injury:

Cory Allen – torn hamstring and tendon
Hallam Amos – dislocated shoulder
Gareth Anscombe – damaged ankle ligament
Ashley Beck – ruptured cruciate knee ligament
Jonathan Davies – torn cruciate knee ligament
Jack Dixon – damaged kidney
Leigh Halfpenny – torn cruciate knee ligament
Tom James – damaged heel and foot arch
Tyler Morgan – dislocated shoulder
Eli Walker – damaged hamstring
Rhys Webb – damaged foot ligaments
Liam Williams – fractured metatarsal
Scott Williams – damaged cruciate knee ligament.

That’s not so much an injury list, more like a couple of overstretched wards up Heath hospital. Few rugby nations would cope with such losses, especially a small country with limited resources like Wales. Ruling body World Rugby don’t like it being mentioned, but the plight of luckless Wales draws attention to the inherent dangers of rugby union. This is a game in which professional players have a 1 in 4 chance of getting a season-ending injury every time they take to the field; making it easily the most injury-prone team sport.

There are non-team sports where the chance of serious or indeed fatal injury is proportionately higher, but they are either non-competitive ‘challenge’/’adventure’ activities like pot-holing and mountaineering, or daredevil pastimes that have danger as their very purpose like base jumping and sky-diving, or pursuits that take place in settings where accidents are likely like fishing or surfing, or sports requiring machinery like motorcycle racing and BMX, or those with a declared aim of disabling the opponent like boxing and wrestling, or those that involve unpredictable animals like bullfighting and, the single most dangerous category of all, the equestrian sports.

World Rugby, like the horse racing authorities, do not keep injury statistics for fear of frightening the, er, horses. This is a particularly irresponsible dereliction of duty when it comes to schools rugby. Parents need to know the chances of their child getting a catastrophic injury at school; but such openness would virtually end rugby in schools and therefore bring the highly lucrative rugby union bandwagon to a complete halt. So all is concealed, deflected and glossed over; a foolishly short-sighted strategy that is actively ruining the sport as a spectacle.

Professor John Fairclough, Wales’ leading sports surgeon, summed it up last week when he said that the number of injuries in professional rugby union “cannot continue at their current rate” and were making the sport “not viable.” “Club rugby in Wales used to be a game for everyone,” he added, “now it’s become a game of freaks.” The skills that made rugby worth watching – the sidestep, the dummy, the feint, the subtlety, the twinkling feet, the running with ball in hand, the off-the-cuff creativity – have been made redundant and replaced by the crash-ball and the crunching collision specifically designed to take an opponent out. As the weight, height, strength, ludicrous musculature and macho posturing of players has increased exponentially, to the point where today’s wingers are bigger than the locks of 20 years ago, all the joy and spontaneity has gone out of the game and we are left with a grindingly ugly, pale hybrid of rugby league and American gridiron – even down to all the imported US jargon like ‘gain line’, ‘yardage’, ‘ball carrier’, ‘blitz’, ‘dead ball’, ‘receiver’, ‘defence’, ‘offence’ (both said with the stress on the first syllable) and ‘turnover’ (previously a pastry dessert containing apple).

This lack of confidence in their own sport, to the extent that features like fourth officials, yellow cards, sin-bins, time outs and clocks counting down are borrowed from other sports, reveals a fundamental problem with rugby union. It’s tantamount to heresy in Wales to say it, so here goes: rugby union is an artificial, unnatural construct concocted in English public schools to suit the vile territory-grabbing values and knuckle-dragging ‘masculinity’ of the sort of Bullingdon Club bombers who currently run Britain. Rugby union is such a rule-ridden rigmarole (the laws of the game require more than 200 pages to be itemised) that results inevitably depend on the whims, mistakes, attitudes and decisions of the referee. Rugby union is an 80 minute game in which the ball is in play for a mere 40% of the time and yet a match takes over two hours to complete. Rugby union is a hymn to violence, a 21st century version of chucking Christians to the lions to satiate the type of people who watch Formula 1 hoping for high-speed crashes. Rugby union is a dystopian nightmare, an intrinsically fascist war-by-other-means orchestrated by sinister corporate manipulators to mould automatons, inculcate rightwing attitudes and stamp out individual agency and non-conformity, as forewarned in the 1975 movie Rollerball. Rugby union is a monstrous monotonous mega-bore that has been a millstone around Wales’ neck for a century…and, except when Wales win, I bloody hate it.

I went to a horrible, rugby-only secondary school (I won’t name it here – readers will have to wait for a work-in-progress blog on that topic), so I speak from knowledge. Coming from a soccer family, at age 11 I was shocked not just by the frightening brutality of rugby or the complete lack of coaching in basic, potentially dangerous techniques like tackling, but also by being treated as a pariah for the next seven years just because I dared to play footie in the dinner-hour and at weekends. A sport that deems it necessary to bully, victimise, intimidate and persecute those who reject it is a sport that has insecurity at its very heart. And a sport that is so enthusiastically embraced by the anti-Welsh, from the old Etonians, peers and fat-cats in the Twickenham boxes via the forelock-tugging royalists of the WRU and the blathering Brit buffoons of BBC Wales through to the 20-page micro-detail supplements of the Western Mail, is a sport that a mature, wise, confident, free-thinking Wales would kick into touch. Bring back the half-time oranges!