By Michael Bolan of the Moscow Dragons RFC
I only remember one upsetting injury that I ever saw on the rugby pitch. A tap-penalty on tour in Edinburgh and the opposition flanker stoops to tackle our loosehead. David might have beaten Goliath, but the outcome of that tackle still raises doubts in my mind. The shock of the impact raised smiles and grimaces in equal measure. But the deathlike stillness of the flanker’s body afterwards quickly put paid to the progress of the game. An experienced coach knew the problem and soon had the guy’s tongue prised from the back of his throat. Somehow, however, the gurgling that came from his bruised throat put a dampener of the competitive spirit of the day. Strange, that. (He turned out to be fine – serious concussion and bruising, but no spinal damage.)
I also remember a guy who used to watch our club 1st XV from the touchline in a wheelchair. A few years older than me, he had apparently broken his back in a school game. Sheer bad luck from all accounts – no malice, no lack of training, no stupidity involved. Just luck. They do say however, that you can’t really train for a car accident, or contracting a serious illness. These both happen a lot more often than serious injury in rugby. Life has its dangers and, as Jim Morrison put it, no one gets out of here alive.
I have read, over the past decade, many articles discussing the stress put on players’ spines in the scrum, the prevalence of broken bones and the extreme danger of playing the sport. (Here's one. Here's another.) I do not know whether such injuries are becoming more commonplace, and if so, if that is because of the new rules that make the game faster. I do know however, that the correct training and tuition can minimise the strain that each particular position causes.
At the age of 17, I moved from wing to prop. For the lay people amongst you, this is the equivalent of swapping 100m sprinting for the shot-putt. (Which I incidentally also did at the same time.) A winger should be a strong runner, with good ball skills. A prop should be a short fat man with legs like tree trunks and a matching neck. Indeed, if by some freak of nature, a man was born without a neck, he would be the perfect prop. A winger sustains the occasional hard tackle whilst running at speed; a prop undergoes constant low-speed battering, often self-induced, as he thuds into equally stocky fellows in an attempt to gain possession of the ball.
Thus, there are obvious differences in the strengths needed for both positions. So why was I allowed to move from one to the other at school? To the position that needed neck and back strength and the most specialised technique on the pitch? Our coaches were not incompetent (one was a former Irish international) but because I looked like a prop (my face caught fire when I was young and my mother beat out the flames with a shovel) they believed I could play the position. During our first team practice in my new position, I was constantly airborne, so high that I could have applied for my pilot’s license. Of course, lifting is now illegal, and no one would think of doing such a thing, but it hurt at the time.
The Seventh Cavalry arrived over the hill in its most bizarre manifestation ever. A parental dinner party attended by a short fat man, full of the humor that seems to be part and parcel of the front row, quickly became a coaching clinic for the battered sons of second rowers. In front of an admiring audience, we went through the rudiments of binding, crouching, engaging, biting, gouging, licking, kissing, headbutting and all the other niceties that occur in the depths of the scrum. And, of course, the tricks of the trade, like eating raw garlic before the match and then breathing on your opponent. Thirty years of playing experience distilled into a post-prandial celebration of informal coaching.
I was lucky. We continue to accept the fact that rugby is a less dangerous sport than many others, but we could make it safer still, by making sure that coaches know what they are talking about, and if there is no specialized coach for a position, sharing one across schools or clubs, or organizing workshops. I returned to warmth and comfort of the scrum a different young man. In general I could cope with what was being thrown at me, and in turn, was more effective for the team. The correct exercise also helped and now I speak like the grizzled old loosehead that I seem to have become.
What worries me is that we do have the knowledge and skills to make rugby a safer and more competitive game. And we seem to do little about it. Organisation and management of teams and coaching seems to require a Masters in Politics (or the surname Machiavelli), and alienates those very people that we need to keep the incidence of serious injury down. Sure, there will always be a few accidents, but in a way they are the exception which proves the rule. It is a tough game, but also a fair contest. Rugby players everywhere need to think about that, if the game is to grow as we would all hope.