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Rugby still has medical work to do

Last night I began watching the Gloucester versus Saracens Premiership rugby match being relayed live from Kingsholm by BT Sport. After a while, not fully engaged by its entertainment and having other domestic distractions I went to bed …and  thereby missed by a few minutes the sight of Ben Morgan, Gloucester’s England Number 8, being carried from the field, receiving oxygen to relieve his pain, with what appears to be a serious leg/ankle injury that will keep him out of some or even all of the forthcoming Six Nations campaign.

In the last couple of weeks, in the run up to this year’s Rugby World Cup, rugby union has been trumpeting its latest developments in terms of health and safety for its players.

In particular, these are the latest protocols on concussion and the announcement that the Saracens club has begun the practice of taping intelligent sensors behind the ear of each player in order to monitor the extent and violence of the physical collisions that they endure during a game. These sensors were originally developed by the NFL in America in the wake of a spate of retired players being diagnosed as suffering from advanced dementia and other concussion-related conditions – up to and including the point of suing the sports authorities for allegedly not doing enough to protect them from the dangers inherent in the sport of American football.

See here for a representative report containing an interview with Richard Bryan, rugby director of the Rugby Players’ Association, as written by Chris Hewett for THE INDEPENDENT

Rugby union is a hard, tough, physical contact sport – it’s in the nature of the beast and a central part of both rugby’s culture and attraction to its adherents.

It would be easy to argue that every worthwhile sport in the world has its issues with the health and safety of its players. At elite level, the demands upon players in all sports is borderline excessive. These days most clubs and teams retain sizeable teams of nutritionists, medical staff, physiotherapists and conditioning experts, but these are primarily concerned with the short-term requirement of the club’s success in competitions and leagues – i.e. to heal injuries and get the player concerned back to full match fitness as soon as possible – rather than the best interests of the long term career and eventual life in retirement of the individual.

I think I’m correct in saying that the number of players in the Northern Hemisphere elite European rugby union leagues who had to retire from the game altogether due to injury during the course of the 2013/2014 season was nearer to forty than thirty. The figure won’t be much different this season.

In this context – for me – to an extent, even rugby’s new developments on concussion smack of complacency.

tackleThere’s an element of “Look how seriously we’re taking this!” in the rather bullish tone of their pronouncements, but – as far as I can tell – not nearly enough work has yet been done in respect of retired rugby players over the last forty years.

How many of them now have dementia or similar conditions and, if so, what proportion of these afflictions be traced back directly to the head and other impacts they endured during their rugby careers?

Rugby makes huge physical demands of its players. Getting fitter and bigger (bulkier) every year – via the use of protein supplements and dietary nutrition along with prolonged periods in the gymnasium – is now a basic requirement for all, not a ‘nice to have’ for those playing in particularly demanding positions in the scrum.

Who currently knows … who is even now researching or monitoring … the long-term effects of the training regimes that professional rugby clubs put their players through?

We all know examples of retired sportsmen and women who live their lives in considerable, sometimes constant, discomfort precisely because of the strains and stresses they placed upon their bodies in their youthful pomp. Soccer centre halves who are crippled with knee problems. Rugby players with chronic bad backs, necks, shoulders and hips. Hundreds of sportsmen and women whose ‘de facto’ body age is way ahead of their number of calendar years.

There are complexities, of course. A great proportion of those now suffering in retirement would shrug off their ailments, adopting the line that these were a price worth paying, or a risk worth taking. Don’t get me wrong – I applaud every sport’s attempts to develop and improve its medical care of participants. However, I cannot but help feel that the world of sport can do better than this.

In rugby, as is probably the case with many others sports, one of the biggest problems facing the sport is the sheer number of matches that players are required to play every year.

Until something is done about not just limiting – but significantly reducing – the year-round grind of seriously competitive matches, I regret that rugby’s governing authorities will have failed in one of their key long-term duties to its participants.




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About Sandra McDonnell

As an Englishwoman married to a Scot, Sandra experiences some tension at home during Six Nations tournaments. Her enthusiasm for rugby was acquired through early visits to Fylde club matches with her father and her proud boast is that she has missed only two England home games at Twickenham since 1995. Sandra has three grown-up children, none of whom follow rugby. More Posts