Alan Watkins: Game is not immune from problems of compensation culture

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The Independent Online

This may be an unseasonable and gloomy subject. But then, we live in gloomy times. On the whole, rugby can afford to be more cheerful than most activities. My subject, however, is injuries – not dislocated collar bones and tweaked hamstrings, but serious injuries – and the effect they may have on the game.

This may be an unseasonable and gloomy subject. But then, we live in gloomy times. On the whole, rugby can afford to be more cheerful than most activities. My subject, however, is injuries – not dislocated collar bones and tweaked hamstrings, but serious injuries – and the effect they may have on the game.

The year has seen several cases. The more serious of them have involved junior rugby: "junior'' in the sense either of the players' age or of the level at which the game was being played. In one of the latter cases, a hooker and a former Welsh amateur boxer was paralysed on account of the collapse of a scrum. The Welsh Rugby Union was held liable for the inadequacies of the referee.

Whether the referee really was negligent, I do not know. But the learned judge found that he was, awarded damages to the player and concluded – somewhat airily, I feel – that the union should have taken out insurance against such incidents and should certainly take it out against their recurrence.

There was a similar case, this time involving a schoolboy, some months ago. Here, likewise, the referee was held to blame. Damages were awarded to the young player. A former England international and practising solicitor hazarded to me afterwards that the judge must have known there was insurance cover; which was why he had found so readily for the youthful plaintiff.

This is the way things are going in the world generally. First, there is the idea that, if something unpleasant happens, someone has to fork out cash: the so-called "compensation culture''. And, second, there is the understanding that the source of the money will not be the person or organisation which has been held to be negligent, but some anonymous insurance company.

It means that we all pay, because the insurance companies recoup their losses from all policy holders. It also means that courts are more likely to find for the plaintiff because they feel sorry for him. He can be compensated out of a bottomless pool of cash. They tend to put into practice the catchphrase of the late Wilfred Pickles: "Give him the money, Barney''.

This tendency was in evidence for most of the last century, ever since the invention of the internal combustion engine and compulsory insurance for all motorists. Only now, comparatively late in the day, is it making itself felt in rugby.

Of course, injuries are nothing new in the sport. In rugby-playing parts of the country, there would be appeals – conducted through concerts, raffles, exhibition matches – to provide motorised transport for former players confined to a wheelchair. Nor were injuries restricted to junior levels. For instance, Danny Hearn, the England centre, was confined to a wheelchair after crash-tackling his New Zealand counterpart. More recently, Gwyn Jones, the Wales flanker and captain, suffered similar injuries after being trapped at the bottom of a ruck while playing for Cardiff.

There is a tendency to conduct the present discussion – about the increased liability of schools, clubs and national unions, not to mention local authorities – as if the players primarily involved were those performing at a more or less lowly level. Up to a point, this is understandable enough. The recent highly-publicised cases have indeed involved players of this kind. Clearly, they are less able to look after themselves.

It nevertheless seems to me that, since the advent of professionalism, the senior game has enjoyed good fortune. No one playing club rugby at the highest level has, as far as I know, been killed or paralysed, apart from Gwyn Jones.

It would be foolhardy to assume that this run of luck will continue. The coaches and administrators should be looking actively at means of making the game less dangerous than it has undoubtedly become.

The only recent measure has been the insistence on qualified front rows and, if the supply of qualified players is exhausted, on uncontested scrums. But I sometimes wonder whether the referees' crouch-and-engage ritual before the scrum is not an invitation to trouble. Much better allow the props first to settle in position.

There is no defence against the rolling maul apart from pulling it down and so conceding a penalty or a penalty try. It should simply be declared illegal and abolished. At the line-out, the gap on which referees insist leads to unnecessary collisions.

Finally, there is no logical reason whatever to change the nature of a struggle for possession merely because the ball has hit the deck. I would abolish the distinction between ruck and maul – or, in other words, allow handling in the ruck. And a merry Christmas to all.

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