DONAL LENIHAN: Rugby’s world concerns: Interest, injuries, and attacking intent

It’s somewhat ironic that at a time when rugby is enjoying an unprecedented level of popularity in this country, with the national team ranked in the top two sides in the world, the game itself faces massive challenges.

Last season, having visited both South Africa and Australia, I highlighted the many difficulties facing the game in those two traditional powerhouses, not least on the financial front. 

Is it any wonder the ARU want Ireland to return and play two tests against the Wallabies in 2020 after selling out all three on their tour there last June.

The opening game in Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium attracted an attendance of 46,273 yet when the Wallabies returned there a few weeks ago to play South Africa in the Rugby Championship, only 27,849 bothered to turn up. A week later against Argentina, hosted down the road on the Gold Coast, only 16,000
attended.

Compare those figures to the regular sold out signs that accompany Six Nations games in arenas ranging in capacity from 50,000 to 80,000 and you begin to understand why the respective unions in Australia, Argentina, New Zealand and South Africa are struggling to keep their heads above water. The parlous state of the game’s finances is a topic I will return to again this season.

Of even graver concern, is the issue surrounding player welfare. Globally, the proliferation of injuries that have become part and parcel of every professional squad is reaching crisis point.

The Guinness PRO14 season got underway with much publicity on the opening weekend of September. 

My inbox was jammed with information with all 14 participants confirming their opening matchday squads. While the various marketing departments were keen to highlight the quality of their exciting new signings, the thing that struck most was the extensive injury lists that accompanied practically every squad for their first round of competitive action.

Take the tournament’s opening game between Ulster and Scarlets as a typical example. Hosts Ulster declared that Kyle McCall (elbow surgery), Tom O’Toole (concussion), Rory Best (hamstring), David Busby (knee), Jean Deysel (knee), Louis Ludik (hamstring), Luke Marshall (knee), Marty Moore (calf), Stewart Moore (knee), Tommy O’Hagan (perforated ear drum), Clive Ross (knee) and Jacob Stockdale (hamstring) were all unavailable for selection.

In the opposite dressing room, Scarlets confirmed prior to kick off that 13 members of their squad were also out due to injury. That before Lions star Jonathan Davies was withdrawn minutes before the start after tweaking his hamstring in the warm-up.

The fact that most squads were starting the season with an average of 25% of their professional roster on injured reserve, despite not having a competitive game for over two months, does not reflect well on the ever-increasing attrition that has become part and parcel of the game. This simply cannot continue.

The fact that a player of the quality of Sam Warburton was forced to retire at 29 years of age should be sending alarm bells ringing. In Warburton’s case, it was the battering and subsequent range of injuries to various parts of his body, exposed to the monumental hits that go with being a poacher at the breakdown, that forced him to call time on a career that should have at least one more Lions tour on the radar.

In addition, former Leinster and Ireland international Dominic Ryan’s honest revelations on his last few outings with Leicester Tigers and the challenges he faced after another concussive incident didn’t paint a pretty picture.

The fact that he became the fifth Irish international after Jared Payne, Nathan White, Kevin McLaughlin and Declan Fitzpatrick, along with Connacht and Ireland A player Dave McSharry, to be forced into early retirement over the last few seasons alone has added further to the concerns surrounding the increasing incidence of concussions in the game.

World Rugby is fully cognisant of this and consequently is looking to redefine the definition of a high tackle from “above the line of the shoulders” to “above the armpit line” after a recent survey revealed that 76% of head injuries occur in the tackle.

In truth, if that criteria is eventually introduced on the back of some trials planned for this season, it will be difficult to police and could result in even more tedious involvement of the TMO as he is tasked with assessing the contact point in the tackle.

Outside of this contentious area, the attrition levels that accompany efforts to clean out bodies at the breakdown has become another problem child for the game’s administrators. Understandably Warburton, supported by his Lions back row colleague Sean O’Brien, has already come out looking for more protection for the poacher.

The situation here could be improved dramatically if the law, as it exists, was enforced more vigorously by the officials. On too many occasions we see players flying into rucks unattached, attempting a clean out. Yet the law clearly states that players must be bound on either a team-mate or an opponent, which must precede or be simultaneous with contact.

All too often we see players enter the contact area, unbound and leading with a shoulder with the potential to cause serious damage. Thankfully referees are beginning to pick up on this with more regularity.

With so many teams now looking to attack from turnovers — given the opposition defensive line hasn’t had time to reset properly — the ability to compete for possession at the breakdown is more important than ever. With sides also winning the vast majority of their set pieces, maintaining a fair contest for possession at the breakdown is even more crucial.

A potential aid towards freeing up badly-needed space for the attacking side to
exploit was put forward by
Ospreys coach Allen Clarke when championing the introduction of a law change which would reward the side kicking from their own half of the field with the resultant line out in the opposition twenty two once the ball bounces into touch.

That potential change is geared towards forcing the defending side to drop their wingers deeper in order to protect the backfield. That could potentially reduce the numbers available to pack the defensive line across the field, offering an incentive for the attacking team to exploit the extra space out wide by keeping ball in hand.

That tweak may be worth further investigation but the cynic in me can only see it being exploited by big, physical sides who will deploy an out-half with a siege-gun boot to gain a foothold in the opposition twenty two.

With the resultant line out throw as the carrot, this could lead to sides perfecting the art of the line out maul even more purposefully with a plethora of tries resulting from that source. It is very difficult to legally sack a maul that has been properly set up and could end with the opposite effect that the change in the law is designed to create - more attacking rugby.

In any event, World Rugby is prevented from introducing any law change of this nature until after the World Cup in Japan next year so the status quo is set to remain for the time being.

With so many factors impacting the professional game at present, not to mention talk of an emerging new global international tournament spread over the spring and November international windows, the sport’s governing body faces some seismic calls. We will watch this space with interest.


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