Happy New Year and, for those of us in the UK, Happy New Lockdown.
Yes, Lockdown 3.0 is upon us and now therefore seems as good a time as any to contemplate the future of our game.
The news that there will, realistically, be no community rugby played until March at the earliest is pretty devastating. After all that training put in over the summer and autumn, players are now faced with further weeks of inactivity and plummeting motivation.
Rather pessimistically, back in the summer I opined that we’d be lucky if we could get rugby up and running again by January 2021, despite there being plenty of enthusiasm and optimism amongst many for an October/November 2020 start. It seems now as if maybe I was a tad too optimistic!
At the elite level the domestic game limps on, swerving and side-stepping Covid wherever it can. Apparently the plan is for the Six Nations to proceed as normal, starting next month – so at least there is that to look forward to, albeit the tournament, if it does go ahead, will do so without live spectators.
There had been talk of pushing the Six Nations back to the summer when – assuming the Covid vaccination programme is rolled out as planned – fans could be allowed back into stadia. This would, however, have necessitated the cancellation of the Lions tour to South Africa – which may yet come to pass given Government nervousness about the South African variant of Covid-19 which, it appears, could be even more transmissible than the new UK strain and more resistant to the vaccines.
Moving on from the immediate future and looking a little longer term, it is clear that rugby has something of a PR battle on its hands to win hearts and minds. Watching rugby these days is very much a case of observing a war of attrition, with the emphasis on players, coaches and teams being obsessed with “winning the contact.” Rugby’s links with dementia, demonstrated via the legal action by Steve Thompson and others is, I suspect, the tip of the iceberg.
Calls to ban tackling in schools rugby have resurfaced and, while I wouldn’t necessarily go that far, it is clear that the authorities need to think long and hard about how unsafe the game has become. As a parent, if I was watching rugby on TV for the first time, for instance, I am pretty sure it is not a sport I would be rushing to encourage my child to participate in.
I feel very conflicted by this – rugby has been a huge part of my life and remains a massive passion for me, but I distinctly remember a time when – the occasional ligament strain or broken bone aside – the game was much safer. Players are now bigger, fitter and coached to win the physical battle, massive collisions are commonplace and head injuries proliferate at all levels of the game. It is scary to watch sometimes.
Something has to change, but we also need to be aware of the rule of unintended consequences. Many, including yours truly, have bemoaned the number of scrummage resets which blight the game, calling for quicker scrums and more ball in play time. Which is is all well and good in terms of entertainment, but equally could lead to more tackles and more contact, ergo more injuries. So we must resist a mere tinkering with the laws and instead take a far more holistic approach – with player safety at the forefront of our thinking whilst trying not to lose the competitive and physical edge unique to rugby.
No easy task then, but to ignore the problem is simply not an option. I would like to think that there is a rosy future for the game and that in 20 years time I might be stood on a rugby touchline encouraging my grandchildren. But for that to happen I suspect that some fairly drastic changes will have to occur.
Now is the time, therefore, for rugby’s authorities to show proper leadership. If not now, when?
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