Wales vs England: We must protect the players - like George North - often from themselves


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The cold eyes and inert body of George North, captured in slow motion as he fell to the ground like a dead fish flopping on to the deck of deep-sea trawler, were a terrible reminder to rugby union of its duty of care to the players whose sacrifice is central to the show.

The scarred face and funereal pallor of Clarke Carlisle, as he delivered his confessional monologue involving suicidal intent, lacerated self-esteem and barely imaginable guilt, prompted further doubts about the demands football places on flawed characters.

There is a well-established link between the sort of concussion North appeared to suffer, in two separate incidents at the Millennium Stadium on Friday night, and the type of clinical depression which prompted Carlisle to step into the path of an oncoming lorry.

American studies suggest those athletes who suffer brain injuries consistent with repeated concussion are three times more likely to suffer some form of mental illness in mid-life. Scientific analysis is evolving quickly, but even mild cases are associated with long-term memory loss.

Concussion rates in rugby are soaring and a range of initiatives, such as Saracens players wearing impact sensors to provide real-time data about the physical stresses they are obliged to endure, have been introduced in response to understandable concerns.

The authorities, aware that the unprecedented scrutiny of a home World Cup brings additional responsibility, have been alerted to the ramifications of unacceptable risk by the law suit convulsing American football’s NFL. All English players, coaches and officials must pass a module featuring medical protocols.

Yet the game’s macho culture still encourages and excuses the bovine drivel expressed by former Wales fly-half Jonathan Davies, when asked by the BBC to address North’s plight. “The bang on the head made no difference” he said. “He was dreadful from the start.”

North is 6ft 4in, and weighs around 110kg, in excess of 17 stones. He is a prototypical modern winger, a sprinter who can bench press 160kg and squat 255kg. He starred in the Lions’ win in Australia in 2013, yet has been obliged to counter accusations in Wales of a poor work-rate and sloppy defence.

Even such prime physical specimens are vulnerable in an age in which rugby’s greatest virtues, of common decency and mutual respect, are being compromised by the manipulative behaviour and presentational hysteria which once defined heavyweight title fights in Las Vegas.

Protocols may involve more stringent memory and balance tests, but two recent international captains of my acquaintance suggest the force of a player’s will invariably influences medical opinion. Insecurity is a fundamental factor, whatever the degree of natural talent.

Football’s culture similarly dictates that honesty is not necessarily the best policy when the black dog bites. Depression renders its victims mute, through fear of reputational damage and an illogical sense of shame.

The illness is supposed to define an insidious form of weakness, yet it demands an unspoken strength because too few in the game take it seriously. A manager to whom I spoke on Friday was advised to obfuscate, or downright lie, when he showed symptoms of stress. The likely impact on his future employment prospects was deemed to be too great.

The League Managers Association operate a discreet, far-sighted referral system but the suspicion is that Carlisle, through the auspices of the Professional Footballers’ Association, saw himself as the poster boy for a definitive campaign. His demons dictated otherwise.

It is not enough to trot out the old orthodoxy that professional sport is a visceral experience in which the frisson of fear is balanced by the promise of riches.

Prick these people and they bleed. If they are not protected from themselves, the reckoning will be brutal, and entirely deserved.

Not selling himself short

The selling of Saido Berahino is underway. He advertised his ambition in an unsanctioned TV interview, and appears unconcerned by the impression left by his exaggerated sense of entitlement.

Acolytes claim he is misunderstood, humble rather than high maintenance, yet this cannot be reconciled with his habit of alienating his team-mates and infuriating his managers.

He fell out spectacularly with Uwe Rösler on an abruptly abandoned loan spell at Brentford, where players still speak of his arrogance, condescension and disrespect.

It is reported that he has been shunned, after ignoring dressing-room convention at West Bromwich Albion with his artless assumption he will move on to bigger and better things.

Berahino has doubtless been reminded by Tony Pulis that he has only scored 14 Premier League goals. He has much to learn and has put himself under pressure to deliver, starting with today’s game at Burnley.

The scouts and suitors will be there. He knows that if he fulfils his potential he will leave Albion’s “naughty chair” and be installed on a gilded throne. Will he justify the hype in which he so obviously believes? I have my doubts.

Cover up the naked truth

America, the land of megaphone morality, is salivating over its annual indulgence, the swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated magazine. This year features Hannah Davis, girlfriend of baseball legend Derek Jeter, tugging at her bikini bottoms in a pose which leaves little to the imagination.

I’m not naïve. I’d bet that a substantial proportion of male readers will check out the goods on Google. But when women’s sport is finally receiving the recognition it deserves, such sub-prime soft porn is outdated, insulting and faintly ridiculous.

Union come together

Sport lacks the human touch. Another depressing week has at least been leavened by the instinctive generosity of German second division club Union Berlin, in giving midfielder Benjamin Köhler a year’s contract extension following the discovery of a malignant stomach tumour. He is unlikely to play again, since he is 34 and facing sustained cancer treatment, but a debt of honour will be repaid.



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