We cannot demand rugby at such a competitive intensity without accepting that the casualty lists are going to be high. The bigger, the stronger and the faster players become, the more the game will suffer from the injuries that are so prevalent at the top level of the game.
The obvious answer is to play fewer games, but our professional rugby is structured around a crowded and demanding club and country fixture list that is not easy to change without threatening the game's finances - and not even the players are volunteering for that to happen.
But there are remedies that must be seriously considered, and the first is to ask whether summer tours ought to be wiped off the calendar. They may be lucrative. They may, at times, be fun. But top coaches I speak to pinpoint the lack of rest in the close season as one of the reasons our players are failing to cope with the demands made on them.
Bodies put through the mincer of the modern game desperately need a long break in the summer. Tours used to be fairly relaxing affairs, but they aren't any more. You only have to look at the men who went on the Lions tour of New Zealand: many of them have yet to get back to active duty at the peak of their powers.
This is not a problem confined to rugby. Most British sports are overplayed and suffering for it; look at our cricketers. But the union boys are the worst affected.
When I was discussing this with a leading coach last week he was telling me about the Royal Ballet. Only in one or two areas would I compare ballet dancers with rugby players, but the latter's art also imposes a heavy strain on joints and sinews. When the Royal Ballet go on tour they expect to incur more injuries than usual, and take extra cover for the main roles. I never thought ballet would have to run a squad system, but it proves that tours do raise the intensity of physical work and impose a higher element of risk.
In my playing days I had three hernia operations as a result of failing to appreciate the danger of not taking a summer rest. When I was in rugby league I went through a spell of playing for Warrington during the winter and then going out to play in Australia in our summer, so I can personally testify to the dangers of back-to-back rugby.
But although everyone is getting alarmed at the rising number of injuries, I doubt whether the players will be allowed to get off the treadmill for long.
The more efficient our training methods become, the more stress is placed on the players to be ready to face an intensity of play we have never witnessed before. There is no respite, but that, after all, is what professionalism is all about. Players accept that dedicating your life to a fast and furious body-contact sport carries a big risk factor, but you cannot go on demanding both quality and quantity from them.
Increasingly, since professionalism arrived, club squads have been forced to step up their practice sessions to commando levels and, with the arrival of all sorts of specialist coaches, players have never had so many taskmasters. So much activity during the week is bound to have an effect. The body can only take so much. Some players are heading for the treatment room even before they play a match.
Why is it that there are fewer serious injuries in rugby league? No one would suggest that league is a softer game. The number of one-to-one collisions is greater in league and yet they do not seem to suffer so much damage because, unlike union, they keep away from contact during training. They work hard and go through their drill work and defensive organisation, but they avoid contact.
I can remember returning from league to union and being astounded by the contact and pressure you faced in training - and that was 10 years ago.
In fact, when I retired it was not because I couldn't face the rigours of match-play - it was the day-to-day strain of training I couldn't face. Flogging willing horses was never a good idea.Reuse content