Peter Bills: Injuries have devalued the Six Nations

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The Independent Online

It’s fun, it’s famous and for atmosphere, it’s fabulous.

It’s coming to a ground near you, starting this weekend. But remember just one thing about the 6 Nations Championship. You have to accept the fact that the 2011 version is almost completely devalued before it even begins.

Accept that and you’ll love the fun and frivolity in Cardiff this Friday night. You’ll have a ball marching down the Champs Elysees as a Scot on the morning of the France v Scotland game this Saturday afternoon. And if you’re one of the thousands of Irish fans in Rome, half of them wearing leprechaun suits and funny ginger beards, you’ll be up half the night in the Irish pubs of the Italian capital.

But please, please – don’t pretend this is a top notch international level competition. It isn’t and it cannot be when so many of the best players won’t even make the trip to Cardiff, Paris or Rome.

England will play Wales in Cardiff without two thirds of their best back row – their captain, Lewis Moody plus Tom Croft - and their most dynamic lock forward, Courtney Laws. They may yet also be without a replacement flank forward, Hendrie Fourie, which would mean a third choice guy would get the nod.

Wales are even worse off. They will have two thirds of their best front row – Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones (both British and Irish Lions) - sitting in the stands, probably for the whole season. As well as that, three centres – Tom Shanklin, Gavin Henson and Andrew Bishop – will also be missing. Like England, they too are even struggling to select a second choice back row player. They, too, are likely to have a third choice guy in the position.

Then there’s Ireland. They will head to Rome without the following players who would have been first choice: Rob Kearney (plus his replacement Geordan Murphy), Tommy Bowe, Shane Horgan, Stephen Ferris and Jamie Heaslip. Every one of them is a Lion.

As for Italy, they will lack flanker Mauro Bergamasco and fly half Craig Gower, almost certainly for the entire season. France are missing from their squad hooker Dimitri Szarzewski and prop Fabien Barcella.

Scotland know they will never again be able to choose one of their most dynamic backs. The flying Thom Evans suffered so serious a neck injury against Wales at Cardiff last year that he will never play rugby again. The impact of a collision knocked his cervical vertebrae so far out of alignment that he was only a millimetre or so from death or permanent paralysis.

It is no wonder that doctors believe he is lucky to have made so complete a recovery from such an injury.

Thus, the famous 6 Nations Rugby Championship, beloved of rugby fans around the world, has become seriously devalued by all these injuries.

Modern day rugby, it increasingly appears, is like an old style battlefield, with bodies strewn all over it.

This devaluation of a major tournament is the price the game is paying for the ludicrous physicality of the sport in its modern day version. Players are being hammered on the training fields and hammered in matches. Smashing into opponents has become a sort of warped, macho mindset. The trouble is, many of the perpetrators are not only damaging their opponents but also themselves.

If this glut of injuries were occurring only at junior levels, you could argue that a lack of proper fitness was the problem and cause. But you certainly can’t say that about those involved in the professional game at the highest levels.

If this situation does not alarm those charged with administering the game, then they should be ashamed. The individual nations will brush aside such talk, suggesting replacements can always be found and there won’t be much difference between those players and the first choice men anyway. After all, the professional game nowadays is about squads, not just teams, we are told.

But that argument is garbage. When some of the best players in the northern hemisphere, many of them good enough to be Lions, either won’t make a single appearance in the tournament or will miss most of the matches, it has to be termed ‘a devalued tournament’.

And then there are the non-6 Nations players who are being forced out of the game through injury. Saracens prop Richard Skuse, has been forced to quit due to a major neck injury.

Players of yesteryear, even those who were highly physical, are alarmed by what is happening. The great Welsh full-back of the 1970s J.P.R. Williams, a man of medicine all his working life, said recently “The modern game must wake up to the increasing problem of career ending injuries. I was never averse to putting in big tackles but the modern game has gone a big step further.

“Players train more; they are bigger, stronger and tackle harder. They play more often and at a higher intensity than ever before.

“They are being subjected to a vast increase in training by the fitness coaches, to the extent that many injuries now sustained in training are from overuse.

“These injuries are often career ending. It’s time for the game to wake up and take this seriously.”

He never spoke a truer word.

So drink all you like boys this weekend; make merry and be hale and hearty. But just don’t confuse this with a top notch international tournament of world standing.

It cannot be with so many world class players nowhere to be seen.