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Ken Borland

Rugby as dangerous as a behind-schedule minibus taxi 0

Posted on December 14, 2022 by Ken

Judging by some safety studies coming out of the UK, playing rugby is seemingly as dangerous as being a passenger in a minibus taxi that is behind schedule after the driver popped into the local shebeen.

There is no denying the alarming figures these studies are revealing in terms of brain injuries since the game went professional, and WorldRugby has been forced into making changes to the law in order to avoid the sort of lawsuits that have cost American Football hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements.

The most obvious of these changes has been the zero-tolerance approach to contact to the head. Unfortunately, in a contact game such as rugby and the highly-fluid tackle zone that features hundreds of kilograms of bone and flesh crashing into, or trying to avoid, each other, accidents are inevitable.

As former Springbok captain John Smit said this week: “You’re never going to make a contact sport 100% safe, there will always be an element of rIsk. And I have never met anyone who was forced to play rugby. I picked up the ball and ran into three guys out of my free will and I understood the risks.

“My shoulder is a mess now, I can’t turn my neck because of the spinal fusion I’ve had, but I’ve had more injuries from cycling! If I was given the choice now, I would still pick up the rugby ball like I did 30 years ago,” Smit said.

An unwanted side-effect of the law changes is that it has made it very taxing to watch rugby these days.

The constant TMO interventions, looking for the slightest head contact, coupled with the rank amateur standard of officiating we see far too often lately, leaves spectators and viewers angry, frustrated and often just plain bored.

I’m not arguing that TMOs should be done away with, they still have a vital role to play in ensuring crucial decisions are made correctly and in stamping out foul play, but their emphasis needs to shift.

So much time was wasted last weekend replaying a totally accidental head-to-head contact involving Bulls flyhalf Johan Goosen, which could easily have been a red card, ruining the game, given how some officials interpret these things.

But when there is obvious dangerous play, sometimes officialdom seems too lenient in dealing with it. Bundee Aki’s cleanout of Seabelo Senatla was clearly dangerous, putting the Stormers wing out of action for months. The Connacht centre has been given an eight-game ban, which seems about right. But it was only that much because of his previous record and the fact he angrily remonstrated with the referee after he was red-carded. The injury to the referee’s pride was obviously much more serious than Senatla’s in the view of the disciplinary tribunal.

And then there’s Darcy Swain, the Wallabies lock, who was only banned for six weeks for the assault on All Blacks centre Quinn Tupaea at a ruck, which must rank as one of the filthiest acts I’ve ever seen on a rugby field. Swain deliberately targeted the trapped leg of Tupaea, twisting it and destroying the New Zealander’s knee ligaments.

Tupaea will be out of action for nine months and is likely to miss the World Cup next year.

It is frustrating enough that there are so many stoppages in a game of rugby these days, with what is meant to be a 40-minute half almost always actually taking closer to an hour to finish, but then the officials so often get the decisions wrong anyway. Now there are also official water breaks scattered through the contest.

Fans are definitely losing interest.

The match between the Bulls and Connacht last weekend at Loftus Versfeld became exciting, on the scoreboard at least, in the second half. But in the main grandstand below the media centre, spectators passed their time cheering and encouraging a trio of spectators who were building a beer snake out of empty cups, making it tall enough to reach the tier above them.

Apparently it was a similar story the weekend before in the Springboks’ crucial Test against Argentina at Kings Park – spectators spent much of the time building paper planes and throwing them around.

Yes, WorldRugby needs to pass laws that make the game safer, but they also need to ensure their product is watchable.

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