THIS afternoon tens of thousands of cheery Irish people wearing green wigs will invade Twickenham for what has long been one of the cherished centrepieces of a year’s sports calender.
The annual tilt at the ’auld enemy never fails to get the juices flowing even though a new-found political correctness has, thankfully and at last, consigned that rallying cry to history along with the tragic events that sustained it.
The game, and all professional rugby, takes place against a background of growing concern on several fronts. The foremost is player welfare, especially around concussion, and the debilitating physical legacy a rugby career can bestow.
Other concerns, though of an entirely different order, are how the game is evolving into something closer to a demolition-derby amusement for millionaire club owners and pay-for-view television companies rather than a game of guile, skill, and endurance for all. The growing gap between the English and French clubs’ resources and those available to all other European clubs also undermines traditional fans’ commitment. Who, after all, enjoys watching their team being consistently outgunned by opponents who have used their far deeper pockets to stack the deck?
Another pressing issue is how the amateur game, the bedrock of so many life-long friendships and powerful social values, is being hollowed out by the unbalanced focus on professionalism. In recent days Fergus Slattery, the former Irish captain and Lions test player, warned that radical change is needed if the amateur game is to survive in a meaningful way. He warned it faces an uncertain future not least of all because of the concerns many parents feel about exposing children to physical contact sports and the risk that might entail.
Efforts being led by the IRFU and the clubs to rejuvenate the amateur game and the community-based competitions that once made it so very alive and very attractive have, in this context, assumed an importance far beyond their immediate objective. It is very important that they succeed.
However, the injuries that seem so routine, and especially concussion, must be the primary concern. That Joe Schmidt is without so many established but injured internationals for this afternoon’s game points to the game’s unsustainable rate of attrition and the demands it places on young, ambitious players. That two players — Leinster’s Mick McCarthy and Connacht’s Dave McSharry — had to just this week accept that their season was over months before their last games will be played because of concussion confirms it. That Jonathon Sexton, who has a worrying record on concussion, will be in the frontline again this afternoon suggests an almost cavalier attitude to his wellbeing. Of course the concerns may be exaggerated but they are nonetheless genuine.
Change is a permanent part of life but it is hard to accept that the evolution redefining this great game is for the better of the sport or for those who so loved it. Rugby needs to
reassert the values and emotional integrity that made it such an attractive, worthwhile, and inspiring spectacle.
But first there is a small but not insignificant challenge this afternoon ... drive on Ireland, up and at ’em!!!
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved