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Highs and Lows of a Rugby Summer

For someone who is a relentless rugby optimist, this may seem a rather downbeat headline and I will dwell on the positives first to prove my optimism!

Argentina cry tears of joy 

Conclusively the team which has emerged with most credit this summer not just because of their All Blacks triumph. They play with an urgency, a pace and with leaders all over the pitch- this has taken us all by surprise. Dark horses for the World Cup now and Eddie Jones will have taken note, or should I say his players will have. Coach Cheika’s amazing success with his recently adopted country will no doubt become another personality clash between these two Aussie protagonists which will just be another distraction.

Lukhanyo Am

Surely the best centre in World rugby after showcasing all his skills yet again this summer in a team that somehow denies itself the chance to display their full range of capability. They won’t come into the World Cup as anything other than fourth or fifth in the pecking order.

Fighting spirit matters

The flaws in both England and the All Blacks are there for all to see but it did not stop some of their younger players digging deep and pulling out a result that allowed them to dream of next year rather then ending up in the ditch.

Ireland soak up pressure

This is the worlds No 1 side, whatever Les Bleus may think or the stats suggest. This team has hardened and moulded its edges over two years now, both at provincial and national level. The only difference is that the French have four teams of equivalent quality so if injuries take their toll, then the men in Green will struggle come the World Cup. For the moment, they look down on all comers.

Soft-hearted Synckler

I would not call him loveable, but he has bared his soul in the newspapers to show what he has gone through in the last two years, that takes some courage. Other than the shocking fact that our medics seem to have as little knowledge of their players’ health as back in my day ( truly shocking), he has endeared himself as has Ellis Genge, his fellow prop at Bristol Bears. I like the thought of these two taking us into the next World Cup, Chilcott-esque in their ability as members of the Front Row Union to say things that really matter.

So where are the issues you may ask? Here are two monsters:

LEADERSHIP

Well, its tough to find wherever you look. The crisis in club rugby in England and Wales has its roots in many issues, most recently the Pandemic. However I maintain – from my 4 decades of on and off field rugby experience- that the long term adversarial relationship between club and Union is entirely to blame. No trust, no transparency, a poorly conceived strategy and a muddled view that you can use the same assets and flog them mercilessly without consequences, physical and mental. No shared financial interest to align with the shared asset, no shared discussion to lay out sustainable structures in the club game, which supplies from the Academies upwards the elite players for our National teams.

Contrast this with Ireland – my 6 year spell as EPCR chairman showed me conclusively over time how successful is their system, based on mutual cooperation and shared financial and strategic objectives. Meantime French rugby, always seemly at war with itself, has set up yet another league with impunity, creating another pathway to the top. If you met the Presidents and Chairmen within French rugby – which I have – and heard their vision you will understand that real rugby people (which they are by and large) are needed to sustain and grow the game. Overpaid and self-important administrators rarely do (I go back two decades)

PLAYER SAFETY

The growing clamour to make immediate changes to our game in the light of appalling stories of long term concussions and early onset dementia seems to fall on stony ground, incomprehensibly. Defence is based around medical advisory groups (Sage like) and the unwillingness to engage based on legal advice because of the claims levied against he game at both amateur and professional level. This has to stop and regardless of any legal action we must separately take steps to protect the future and it is achieved by returning to a way of playing the game which existed for decades with great success. This will compliment undeniable advances in other areas, whether fitness, athleticism, entertainment and new technology.

A senior figure in rugby administration said recently that the game was as safe as could be and getting safer- simply not true and extremely ignorant of the facts. Here are some clear and straightforward changes to make.

I have long been forthright on supporting draconian action by our referees to crack down on contact to the head. I now add the need to ban players for longer periods of time, and admonish or discipline coaches, players and administrators who use football manager style language to ignore the facts which they clearly saw at the time. They will soon learn.

The tackle height must be moved down forcibly even through a line on the shirt and replacements should be injury based only. These measures are so obvious and easy wins.

Contact training must be reduced to the bare minimum. Why is this an issue? Is it the influence of Rugby League coaching? One of their best Shaun Edwards is in fact leading the way to change attitudes.

Finally, I have spoke to a number of teachers and sportsmasters in schools rugby. They are petrified of the game losing traction at the lack of consideration for our young players health. They have not been consulted – that is a fact. This has persuaded me it is time to get our game back – It is becoming my favourite mantra, that administrators come and go but it is our game they leave behind and we must act now to save it for the next generation. 

I have not spoken to a single ex player or commentator of note in the game who disagrees with this. Time to force action and I know what side of history I want to be on.

Let’s do it.

S.

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