Only in a game like rugby union could you ever expect to hear someone saying tacklers have a ‘duty of care’ not to hurt their opponents, writes Scotty Stevenson.
For the uninitiated, rugby union is game played by fifteen large people, all of whom spend at least 70 percent of any given day getting larger and stronger by working out with professional trainers and eating their body weight in whey protein. Rugby is the game for all sizes, as long as that size is at least XL (or you’re a halfback. Halfbacks have special privileges in rugby union because they are most often tiny men with loud, annoying voices).
Once a week or so, these fifteen people run out onto a rectangular grass paddock and proceed to try to run around or over or through fifteen other people who in turn try to put their large bodies in the way so that the other guys can’t do so. The game has been played in this manner for a century and a half (give or take a few years) and in that time it would be safe to wager that not a single participant has finished a season without a bruise, a strain, a knock on the bonce or a broken bone or two. If you have, you’ve probably been doing it wrong.
Rugby is a fiercely competitive contact sport – the only professional oval ball code that allows the ball to be live once the player in possession hits the ground. At this point, a number of large people throw themselves at or near the ball with little regard for their health and safety or the health and safety of the person they are throwing themselves into. It is because of this that sometimes a player will emerge from the fray only to discover that they have lost an eye. Usually they play on. On other occasions a player may be pinned at the bottom of a ruck under a face load of nutsack (in the men’s game that is). In these situations it is best to play dead.
Rugby union likes to claim it is a game for gentlemen (and women) because it has a long history of players beating the crap out of each other for eighty minutes and then sharing a beer together afterwards. Quite frankly, a number of absolute creeps have also played rugby over the last 150 years. They share a beer afterwards only because running around for eighty minutes is thirsty work. Rugby union certainly does build character though. It teaches you how to keep running without the ability to re-inflate a collapsed lung.
In its rush to protect the sport’s image so that helicopter mums will still let their children play, the governing body has, over a number of decades, banned such things as all-in brawls, punching, kicking, biting, rucking, taking a player out while that player is airborne, and referees making crucial decisions in a game without the assistance of a less qualified referee sitting on a chair watching a television in a small room. Most of these things have had a positive effect on the game, and emergency room waiting times.
As a result of these interventions, the game is safer than ever. At least, it’s as safe as a game can be when that game is played by fifteen (okay fourteen and a half) large people all of whom are trying to stop a team full of other large people by attempting to break them in half. You can’t mitigate for every bump and scrape in the game of rugby union. Occasionally someone will get hurt. Rob Henshaw got hurt on Saturday in Dublin and we all hope he will be okay.
What’s not okay is the subsequent overreaction to the incident that led to Henshaw’s early exit from the game. What’s not okay is claiming a player in full flight attempting to stop another player in full spin has a ‘duty of care’ to that player. A ‘duty of care’? Spare me. What is not okay is picking a still photograph from a game of many fast-moving parts in order to paint as a villain a man who was simply trying to do his job.
Sam Cane’s job is to put players on their backsides. His job is to make dominant tackles. A dominant tackle is one which immediately halts a player’s forward progress and puts that player in reverse. Dominant tackles tend to be made by players who stand tall. Sam Cane made more dominant tackles this season than any other player in New Zealand.
He’s also been on the receiving end of more than a couple. Just recently Cane returned from injury to play for his provincial side, Bay of Plenty, against Otago in New Zealand’s domestic championship. The first time he got the ball a young Otago midfielder by the name of Sio Tomkinson aimed up and flattened him with a classic blindsiding hit. A few minutes later he did it again. They were the kinds of tackles that Cane himself has become famous for. Did they hurt him? Damn right they did. Had he moved his head at the wrong moment they could have potentially hurt much worse. He didn’t, the game went on, and nothing more was mentioned.
On Saturday in Dublin the All Blacks (193) and Ireland (93) made 286 tackles in the test match. On top of this there were 216 rucks. That is a tick over 500 contact points in the game during which someone could snap, break or crack. If people wish to agonise over one tackle, then please by all means go back and watch every single contact in the game and come back to me with a full list of perceived indiscretions. I doubt you’ll have the time nor inclination.
In the meantime, you could always pick a more leisurely pursuit for your viewing pleasure, one in which very large and very strong athletes aren’t compelled to tackle each other with every force they can muster. The players know there is always a risk when they take the field – most of them talk in war metaphors for goodness’ sake – and we must acknowledge that too.
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