Rugby is being devoured by a monster of its own creation. The news that over half the squad chosen by England head coach Andy Robinson couldn't attend last week's three-day training camp because they were injured was startling but hardly unexpected. The game has been heading in this damaging direction for years and it is not going to improve unless some drastic changes are made.
The first step is to acknowledge why the game's progress is leaving such a high number of casualties in its wake. The initial reaction of most has been to demand a reduction in the number of games. But the season has hardly started, so how on earth can you blame too much action?
It should be obvious that the damage is being done before they get to the games. It is relentless, intensive training, or conditioning as they call it these days, that is making players' bodies vulnerable to breaking down under pressure.
And the fact that those bodies have never been as big and as strong doesn't help. Ever since professionalism and full-time training arrived the average size of a rugby player has increased dramatically. Backs are as big as forwards used to be. With clubs keen to develop young talent, boys of 16 are as big as 19-year-olds were 20 years ago.
Everyone has a natural size and bone structure. The more you build up muscle and power the more stress you put on joints and ligaments. There's bound to be a price to pay and we are now seeing how high it is. You can't stop players improving their physiques in order to cope with the rugged requirements of the modern game. But you can take a more sensible and scientific approach to the methods used to condition those bodies for the fray.
In Australia, the ACT Brumbies Super 14 side limit their physical contact during training to the minimum. Rugby league, which is much more of a continual collision game than union, has far fewer injuries and the main reason is that they allow very little contact in training. I felt far fresher running out to play a league match than I did for a union game. It wasn't that I trained less - I always trained hard in both games- but my body didn't take the hammering on a league training ground that it did in union.
I was in union when I retired and I didn't do so because I couldn't take playing any more. It was training I couldn't take because it was asking more of me than the games were.
No matter how hard and hurtful it is, a player can take one game a week and give his utmost. In between he needs rest and training concentrated on maintaining his fitness and sharpness levels. What he doesn't need is his body and brain battered by a succession of specialist coaches all wanting to put their two-pennyworth in. For an international player, having to serve two masters hardly helps his physical and mental well being.
There is a suggestion that the injury rate among forwards can be reduced by depowering the scrum. Apart from the fact that 70 per cent of neck injuries occur outside the scrum the game would be ruined if you did away with its competitiveness. You'd have players as big and quick as Lawrence Dallaglio at prop if you did away with it as a speciality position.
The other statistic revealed last week was that two-thirds of players had been pressurised into playing when not fully fit. That's nothing new. I've taken pain-killing jabs on many occasions because I always wanted to play. I never missed a key game if it was possible for me to be patched up for action. But no one ever put pressure on me. They didn't have to and I believe that such decisions should be left to the individual.
There may be a glimmer of salvation in the suggestion that both hemispheres should have the same season, say from February to October. It would take a lot of cooperation from the TV companies and sponsors, but it would have many benefits - not least for the game to take a complete break worldwide. So when players return to training they will be ready to get in shape.
To have over half your best players knocked about and knackered so early in the season is utterly barmy.Reuse content