The Roar
The Roar

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Opinion

There are only two ways rugby can go from here - and there's no middle ground between physicality and safety

1st April, 2024
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1st April, 2024
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I don’t watch replays of players getting injured. I’ll change channels, cover my eyes if I’m watching with others or simply wander off to avoid seeing legs break or knees buckle.

I don’t want to see blokes landing on their heads, being knocked out or dislocating a shoulder. I accept that those things can happen in contact sports, but I don’t want to look at them.

I see talk now of hip-drop tackles needing to be “outlawed’’ in rugby. Just as I read reports about them being banned in the NFL or see guys suspended for them in the NRL.

I see then-All Blacks captain Sam Cane sinbinned and, eventually, sent off in last year’s Rugby World Cup final for contact to the head. I see his South African opposite, Siya Kolisi, not get a red card in the same game, for an action not dissimilar to Cane’s.

I mention these things because I’m not sure administrators in any code know what to do in instances when players are injured.

Once upon a time, foul play was stuff like stomping on a head at ruck time or gouging an eye. Maybe even a bit of biting.

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Now, you can be sent from the field for actions that would have previously been regarded as inadvertent or accidental.

I don’t like hip-drops and I’m not happy, for instance, that Hurricanes halfback Cam Roigard now faces a stint on the sideline.

But what do administrators want and what can they realistically legislate for? Like I said, I’m squeamish and I hate seeing people hurt. I’ve also interviewed innumerable players about the mental and physical torture of battling back from season-ending injuries.

Never mind the blokes forced into retirement due to repeated head trauma. Let’s not tackle above the nipple line. Fine. But let’s not tackle too low either, because you risk a head knock from the ball runner’s knees.

Let’s not grab a leg or an arm, because that’ll turn into a hip-drop, chicken wing or neck roll. Can’t grab the jersey, because they went skintight years ago.

Cam Roigard suffers injury last weekend (Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

Gone are the days when players suffered an unfortunate head clash. Now that’s a cardable offence too.
Can you see where I’m going with this?

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I don’t crave a return to the “good old days’’ when men were men and encouraged to bash each other to their heart’s content.

But I am saying that, in this modern age, is contact sport fit for purpose? I played rugby at school and club level, but I was delighted when, in Year 8, my boy opted to flag it.

He’d long since told his mother the game had become too physical for her to be able to come and watch.
Our situation wasn’t isolated. As boys got to 11, 12, 13-years-old, they opted for football, hockey, basketball, golf, whatever.

The risk – or at least fear – of injury in rugby had become too great for them and their families. So there’s two ways the game can go here.

It can say injuries of the sort Roigard suffered are disappointing, but simply part of rugby.

After all, the tackling techniques we see at Super Rugby Pacific and Test level are taught techniques. They didn’t exist in junior footy.

And if we are using – and therefore endorsing – grappling techniques to bring ball carriers to ground, then we can’t really complain about the odd bit of collateral damage.

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Lachlan Lonergan of the Brumbies is stretchered off the field after suffering an injury during the round six Super Rugby Pacific match between Queensland Reds and ACT Brumbies at Suncorp Stadium, on March 30, 2024, in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Albert Perez/Getty Images)

Lachlan Lonergan of the Brumbies is stretchered off the field after suffering an injury against Queensland Reds. (Photo by Albert Perez/Getty Images)

I’m not suggesting a free for all here, more of an acceptance that injuries happen in contact sport and changing laws every time someone gets hurt is absurd.

Or we can decide that player safety is paramount and all start “tackling’’ like they do in the AFL.

If the game becomes a glorified game of touch footy at some point well, at least, we’re doing our bit for player welfare. I don’t like seeing guys get injured. I think I’ve made that very clear.

But if we take this pursuit of a game in which no-one gets hurt to its logical conclusion, then we don’t actually have rugby anymore.

This is a critical time for the game in that regard, because I don’t think there is a happy medium to be found between safety and physicality when it comes to contact sport.

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So when I see calls to outlaw the hip-drop, my first thought is stop teaching it at training then. And before we say administrators have a duty of care towards players, how about we insist that their fellow professionals show some as well? I mean it’s not the chief executives and board members spear tackling blokes is it?

Then my mind drifts to what is acceptable contact and what options have we left players with when it comes to safely effecting a tackle?

I’d grapple with those questions before I went on some counterproductive hip-drop crackdown.

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