David Flatman: The risks will only get worse, but there's no simple answer
View from the front row with Bath & England prop
Sunday 25 October 2009
Contrary to what the armchair cynic might assume, seeing Andrew Sheridan dislocate his shoulder last week made me feel horrible. Of course, an injury to any man with whom one is in direct competition can only improve one's chances of a call-up, but in this instance I felt nothing but sympathy for my old friend.
Perhaps it is because I have been where he is – in bed, in pain – and know exactly what he is going through. Apart from the physical discomfort, it is the feeling of uselessness that seems to affect the sidelined rugby player most severely. Knowing that all of your mates are out on the field running around, while you sip water to stave off the painkiller-induced cottonmouth and flick between Cash in the Attic and This Morning on the television, is utterly soul destroying. As much as you might crave the week off at the moment your alarm clock sounds in the early winter dark, a good injury lay-off is all it takes to make you appreciate being fully fit.
Sheridan is, however, just another name to add to England's truly unfortunate list of injuries; Lee Mears has hurt his knee and will be out for up to two months and Danny Cipriani, Tom Rees, Riki Flutey, Jordan Turner-Hall and Delon Armitage have been ruled out of the autumn internationals through injury. This week Phil Vickery was added to that list, having suffered a neck injury which now needs corrective surgery.
At the risk of sounding like an omniscient pensioner, this is all symptomatic of the modern-day game. Nobody is surprised at the amount of blokes getting hurt, are they? As becomes more and more visible with every passing weekend, the game as we once knew it is dead. Those taking part are now significantly bigger, more powerful and better prepared than ever. The thing is – and I'm no doctor, so excuse the assumption of knowledge – the bones, ligaments, tendons and cartilage do not quite seem to be managing to keep up with the annual rate of muscular inflation. Serious injury is, as one physiotherapist put it to me recently, only a scrum away.
But is there anything we can do to arrest this trend? Well, resting players, as we saw two weeks ago in Cardiff when Harlequins tried it, does not go down well. Perhaps it is the game itself that needs tinkering with.
Like all prop forwards in the world, I think referees rarely get it right and guess all too often at the scrummage (unless they are awarding me a penalty, in which case I am the first to congratulate them on their set-piece mastery). A while ago, to make the whole area more manageable for the officials and more "safe" for the poor trolls at the coalface, a "touch" was introduced to the engagement process. This, to my mind, achieved roughly nothing. If we wish to reduce the likelihood of catastrophe at scrum time, the engagement itself has to be done away with. As this is sacrosanct – to my barbarian friends and me at least – its abolition is not an option. We front-rowers feel privileged that the part of rugby which encompasses all that is great, confrontational and primal about the game falls under our job spec, so the engagement must stay, and the risk must remain part of the deal. The breakdown, too, is always a potential zone of danger. But unless we ban all bodies from hitting the floor (often head first), the level of potential risk seems set to rise as it always has.
Of course, it is the damaged player who suffers most, closely followed by the helpless coaches and managers whose job it is to select winning teams. But it is not often that the spectator's view is canvassed. These people, rugby's financial lifeblood, pay good money to watch the stars take the field and do battle. Nothing they do can possibly change fate and stop players getting hurt but one must sympathise with the short-changed punter. After all, a ticket to watch Wasps is no cheaper if, like this week, Rees, Vickery, Shaw and Sackey are not playing. Poor old Joe Bloggs.
Realistically, and it pains me to say this, the only possible answer is impossible. Risk is, of course, directly proportional to minutes played. As we all know, fewer games may equal fewer injuries, but sadly it also equals less cash. There has to be a balance in all sports between commercial appeal and athlete welfare but, with rugby seemingly doomed to remain on the breadline, neither side of this see-saw seems to weigh up at all.
So, it seems things are unlikely to change and the likes of Martin Johnson are unlikely to find their selection process any less fractured or problematic. The only thing we can do is what we have always done, what our contracts tell us to do; put in our gum shields, pray for another week's grace and, above all else, try to be bigger and stronger than all the others.
It will click, but we can't sit around and wait for it to happen
It was devastating to lose again yesterday but we've got to be careful that we don't slip into a situation where we're chasing that elusive win.
We've simply got to play how Bath play – we don't want to throw it around everywhere. We've got a structure and we need to stick to the plan. There were times when we didn't get it right and we allowed Newcastle to play some good stuff. If you continue to make errors you will struggle to win. A Bath supporter might say that they got a couple of tries against the run of play but we can't think like that.
We did play some really good rugby but we just couldn't quite finish it off. It's all very well looking fantastic in two thirds of the field, but we also spent too much time in our own 22.
There are intelligent people at this club in terms of the playing staff, and the message is "don't panic". We will allow ourselves some time to sulk but ultimately that will get us nowhere.
There can be no thoughts of us not being able to pull it around. There will come a time when it will click but we can't sit around and wait for it to happen. We will stick to our game and get it right.
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