Older readers will remember the raft of spinal injuries that were a blight on rugby in the 1980s.
News would emerge on a semi-regular basis that a club or age-group player would never walk again as a result of a catastrophic injury sustained while scrummaging.
Whether it was scrum collapses, or poor timing in the engagement, too many frontrowers were getting hurt.
Things changed a bit in the 1990s. Rugby invested time and money in making sure props and hookers knew what they were doing. The game couldn’t afford – in any sense of the word – to keep generating such damaging headlines.
Elite coaches and players were dispatched to clubs and schools to ensure frontrowers could scrummage safely. Your body shape was studied – and the length of your neck – but the most important change was the sequencing of the engagement.
In time, we came to learn that the gap between the two packs was still too vast and that there was still too great an emphasis on the hit. Timing remained an issue and All Blacks props such as Olo Brown, Richard Loe and Mark Allen were among those forced into retirement with serious neck problems.
Fans will always complain when a scrum goes down but – unlike 40 years ago – frontrowers invariably walk away from them.
Now we’re hearing about concussion. And hopefully we keep hearing about it too.
This can’t be something that’s topical for a week and that we rarely discuss again.
For now, the emphasis is on former professional players and the duty of care of governing bodies. Could more have been done to protect these men from brain trauma and who’s going to help them now that they’re experiencing health problems?
Let’s say you’re a smoker. That’s not your job so, for argument’s sake, let’s call it your hobby. If you develop cancer, for instance, is that on you or is that on the company that made the product that gave you cancer?
A generation or two ago, when people knew less about the harm caused by smoking, it was the manufacturers who were forced to pay financial settlements.
We’ll never know what brain trauma players of yesteryear suffered. You assume many did, but protocols and levels of care were far different even at international level, never mind club and provincial.
The main difference now, though, is that men such as Steve Thompson and Neemia Tialata were at work. Rugby was their job, not their hobby.
As a player, you know rugby is a dangerous sport, but if you suffer a workplace injury or – in this instance – are potentially exposed to levels of harm that could have been mitigated, then who is responsible?
We’ll find out in due course how much the powers that be knew about brain trauma and the lengths they did – or didn’t – go to to protect players from injury.
Maybe we’re all too nostalgic and romantic for our own good but rugby, for many people, will always be better and tougher in a bygone era. The players will forever be more skillful, better rounded, more articulate and quotable, less selfish and egotistical in the sepia-toned days when each of us fell in love with the game.
The overall product, at least in our eyes, was never better than at this point in time and we fear – no matter when it was that our ideal era occurred – that the modern game is going soft.
Once upon a time, a few diehards weren’t particularly delighted when the scrum laws changed. When we all bound up and waited for the referee to chant “crouch, touch, engage.’’
We’d had a free-for-all prior to that. There were no calls. You just bound up and charged at the opposition as soon as you could, under the assumption that it was better to engage before they were ready.
Only that’s how people got badly hurt.
They talk about a “nipple line’’ in junior rugby. If you tackle or fend above that, then it’s a penalty.
Even in kids’ grades you get those familiar grizzles. A fend in the face never hurt anyone and what’s wrong with around the shoulders? Never did us any harm.
But the truth is that junior rugby isn’t any poorer for not having high fends and tackles. And nor, while we’re at it, is it any poorer for not having contested scrums either.
It’s still rugby and still all about catching and running and passing. People are still being tackled, there’s just none of those seatbelts and neck rolls and the like.
Adult rugby will need to go this way in time and, like the juniors, it won’t be any poorer for tacklers not being able to attack the head.
The game faces a massive challenge in dealing with the legal issues that are potentially coming its way. Brain trauma is real and you imagine those players who suffer from it will eventually be financially compensated.
But if rugby wants to survive long term, then it can’t just talk about player safety. It has to make fundamental changes of the sort we saw in the 1980s when too many rugby players were being left paralyzed.
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