For all the philosophical rights and wrongs, those in charge must reach a definitive, far-sighted consensus – just tinkering with tackles will not do if rugby is to be made safer
Say what you like about the Rugby Football Union but it leads the world when it comes to totting up rugby injuries. Since 2002 there has been a painstaking audit of every twanged hamstring and strained ankle, with the aim of identifying trends rather than jumping to instant conclusions. It is unglamorous work but thank goodness someone has been doing it.
Because each year we discover a little more about how the game is changing, for better or worse. The year 2017-18 figures are as thought-provoking as ever, not least the massive spike in injuries at England training sessions and the ever-lengthening periods that top players, on average, are out with injury. Concussions, by contrast, are fractionally down, although the experts are not yet sure if that is merely a blip.
As with all statistics, perceptions tend to be shaped by those quoted in headlines rather than buried in the small print. Next year, when data from every major competition in both hemispheres will also be available for comparison, promises to be even more instructive. Unless, of course, rugby’s future ultimately boils down to an entirely separate question: what constitutes acceptable risk? What is “too dangerous” and who gets to define that? Rugby, as a contact sport, will always involve discomfort but at what point do personal choice and health and safety irrevocably part company?
This particular debate also now has to be viewed in the context of the concussion-based litigation already transforming the landscape in American football. For all that, the views of Dr Simon Kemp, the RFU medical services director, on the subject of “responsible risk management” in rugby are worth contemplating, too. “It’s not for medics to determine if something is acceptable or not,” Kemp said. “You have to put it in context with other risks we’re exposed to in life. What about the risk of driving a car to and from training and matches, for example?” The health benefits of exercise and the joys of collaborative team sport also help to balance the equation. A life without rugby might be physically less painful but seriously deficient in other ways.