Suck out the joy and people will turn away (2022)

Then it came, the question was why it had taken so long. In August 1995, the International Rugby Board, as the world game’s governing body was then called, announced the game was going open, almost 100 years to the day when rugby had split into two codes in a difference of opinion over broken time.

South Africa were the World Cup holders 27 years ago, as they are now, and Leicester the English champions, although the Premiership was a couple of seasons away, but not much else has stayed the same. Many of the changes have been for the better: grounds, pitches, the conditioning of players, the level of support and sponsorship, the profitability of the World Cup, Olympic status and the gradual evolution of World Rugby into an organisation which is increasingly able to run the game for all rather than the few.

It is on the pitch where the change has been most profound. Union was a game for all shapes and sizes that could crudely be broken down into two parts: the battle between the forwards, at a time when, with no television match officials, citing commissioners or, until the end of the amateur era, neutral touch judges even, the law of the jungle prevailed, and backs running at backs, seeking space rather than contact. There was kicking, even more now, but it tended to be for position and the chance to give forwards a breather rather than a means to chase and clatter.

The average ball in play time in 1995 was 27 minutes (20 years before it had been around 20 minutes). Today it is close on 40 minutes and with the ball in play more, the number of rucks has more than doubled from 90 to 210, even if rucking itself has been all but eliminated. In contrast, the average number of scrums in a match has halved from 24 and lineouts have dropped from 38 to 22.

With the ball in play a lot longer, more tackles have to be made. And it is here where the game is having to take stock as nearly 200 former players who are suffering from early onset dementia are taking legal action against World Rugby and the English and Welsh unions, claiming that they were negligent in failing to take reasonable action to protect players from permanent injury caused by repetitive concussive and sub-concussive blows.

Suck out the joy and people will turn away (1)

Injury: Max Brito is carried from the field during the 1995 World Cup

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The weight of the average player has increased by 10 per cent since 1995, from 100kg to 110kg. When the sport became professional overnight, coaches found they had an enormous amount of time to fill. Training sessions in the amateur era had tended to be held on two nights a week, Tuesdays and Thursdays, and in the lighter months of a season midweek matches were common.

Professionalism changed all that. Alex Evans was the coach of Cardiff at the time, as well as being in temporary charge of Wales, and like many at the time he had to adapt. “There is so much more time now but how do you fill it?” he said.

The gym became a refuge and gradually coaches, or head coaches as they came to be known, turned into football managers. Rugby union was no longer a players’ game. “The coaches basically said they had got us and could train us from nine to five every day,” said former Australia full-back Matt Burke.

The Rugby Football Union voted against the decision to abandon amateurism and the game in England operated in a vacuum in 1995-96 because Twickenham wanted time to come to terms with professionalism, rather than run headlong into it: it did not enter its clubs into the inaugural Heineken Cup campaign, along with Scotland. As the working party it set up pondered what to do, a number of entrepreneurs, led by Sir John Hall at Newcastle, took over clubs and nearly a decade of civil war followed with players caught in the middle.

At the end of England’s first professional season, 1996-97, the Guardian journalist Ian Malin published his book: Mud, Blood and Money, English Rugby Union Goes Professional. He pondered the fate of amateur volunteers up and down the country and whether they would feel as inclined to give their time for free while others were earning their livings from the game.

And he had another concern, “the nature of a bruising game which is becoming more competitive now that money is at stake. Rugby union has always teetered on a dangerous, violent precipice. There are dark alleyways in matches in which players can be mugged. The game relies on decency, self-discipline and self-restraint.

“New fitness levels and hours of body-building in the gym allow players to crash into each other so relentlessly that they may soon be sewing air-bags into their shirts. This has added to the gladiatorial spectacle, but that self-restraint is vital, along with the need to preserve bruised bodies for those physical encounters.”

He reflected on Ian Tucker, an Oxford University centre who in October 1996 died after making a tackle during a match against Saracens. He was taken to London’s National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, but the following day his life-support machine was turned off. The freak accident came 18 months after Max Brito was paralysed from the neck down after a ruck collapsed on him following a tackle in the opening minute of the World Cup game against Tonga.

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“Tucker’s death brought into focus how dangerous a collision sport can be,” wrote Malin. “The 21-day rule for resting concussed players is still abused and needs to be constantly monitored. Hopefully coaches and directors of rugby will be responsible enough not to flout it, even if it means resting key players for vital games.”

Suck out the joy and people will turn away (2)

Suck out the joy and people will turn away (3)

Richmond DOR Steve Hill, above, and former Wales captain Ryan Jones, below

PICTURES: Getty Images

Richmond’s director of rugby Steve Hillwas in charge of Oxford University in the 1996-97 season having been part of Harlequins’ coaching team under Dick Best the year before.

“Ian got his head on the wrong side,” he said. “He went to the floor, got up and took his place in the defensive line. Then he collapsed and never regained consciousness. It was a horrible accident.

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“A top neurologist came to speak to the players. They wanted to understand what had happened and the way he put it was that when it came to the brain and the skull, it was like having a jelly in a biscuit tin. Drop it off the edge of the table and after it hits the floor, the jelly may be in one piece or spread out all over. Someone asked if a head guard would help and he said no.

“There is a heightened concern among players over head injuries. More are asking questions of the medical staff now and last season three of our leading players, who were all in their late 20s, retired because of repeated concussions.

They did not want to risk permanent damage, but 10 years ago they would probably not have had those discussions.“Our head physiotherapist, Michelle Cuthbert, is very aware about players returning to play after head injuries and very conservative. I still do not understand why the 21 days minimum rest period dropped to seven and there needs to be more research and understanding about how to get players back in a safe manner.”

As someone wh start of the profes believes that the g changed for the be ing that there are a that need to be add “Rugby is a lot m now,” he said. “I th definitely look at t substitutions perm should be striving days when fatigue in the final 20 min with gaps appeari not as hard.

“Now profession change more than and fatigue does n issue. You will alw for front row for sa outside of that rep should be for injur help change the co players: they woul lighter and less bu minutes.

“Another issue i in the day, tackles on-one and the def go lower to bring d rier. Now you have the point of contac ferent heights, wh become known as was there at the sional era, Hill game has largely etter while acceptareas of concern dressed. more entertaining hink they should the number of mitted because we g to get back to the e became a factor nutes of a match ng and challenges nal sides can n half their team not become an ays need cover afety’s sake, but placements ry. That would onditioning of ld need to become ulked up to last 80 is defence. Back tended to be onefender tended to down the ball-care two defenders at ct, tackling at difhich is why it has the hit. It can mean 250kg tackling 125kg. A few seasons ago, there was an experiment in the Championship Cup with tackles having to be below chest level, but it was abandoned halfway through because there were so many concussions from heads hitting knees. It is not an easy fix.”

The season was shorter in the amateur era, running from the beginning of September until the end of April. The Premiership campaign kicks off on September 9, less than 12 weeks after the play-off final between Leicester and Saracens at Twickenham with clubs this month starting a series of friendlies. It is now an all-year round sport with July reserved for international tours.

“The season is long in the lower leagues,” said Hill. “To me it should start in October and finish at Easter. Eight weeks off is not enough for bodies to recover or to give players the time to look forward to the new season. We have followed football’s model which believes that more is better, but as a game we are closer to American Football which is played over five months with teams having 15 matches.

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“A shorter season makes supporters and players want to come back and sometimes less is more. I think professional clubs have worked that out when it comes to training and it is better for the game when decisions, such as the one over the number of fixtures in the national leagues, are made by directors of rugby and captains rather than chairmen and accountants.”

Will the number of early onset dementia cases among former players encourage evasion ahead of contact? “It can be a cultural thing,” said Hill. “The French have some huge players but they do like to play in space and Fiji are equipped to smash their way through defenders but they love the off-load. In contrast, South Africa relish physical contact.

“What I would like to see is youngsters playing a variety of sports in the summer rather than pumping iron in a gym to prepare for the new rugby season. Other sports equip you with skills which can be used in rugby, but it seems to be about getting bigger and heavier which, in the context of taking action to reduce the number of concussions, should not be the way.

“Rugby is a late development sport. Up to the age of 17 it should be about skills and enjoyment. Youngsters are more likely to keep playing if they find it to be fun and fulfilling. Why do so many walk away from the game when they are 18 or 19? Because they are bored with being stuck in the gym and seeing summers cancelled so they can put on four kilos.

“It is not exciting or stimulating. They want to be out on the field with a rugby ball in their hands showing off their skills. At that age, rugby needs to be enjoyable for as long as possible. Suck the joy out and people will turn away. It is something I am very conscious of at Richmond. I have had 75 lads at training this summer and if I just beast them they will not come back. When rugby went professional overnight, there was very little time to prepare for the coming season. Suddenly clubs were paying people and it became a case of making them earn their money, as in a 9-5 job. We did not know then what we do now and there was a lot of contact in training.

Mistakes were made and there was a lot of learning which is why the game looks so different now. “There have been some fantastic developments and it is an exciting game. Concussion is the biggest challenge it faces and the game needs to be attractive and safe so players want to be a part of it. My captain, Mark Bright (a No.8), is still playing at the age of 43. He came to us eight months ago having played for London Scottish and Ealing Trailfinders.

“He never takes full contact from the opposition, using his feet to ensure he does not get smashed. He is a big bloke, 6ft 4ins and 18st, but he dances his way through challenges. Perhaps that is what we should all be concentrating on, beating people rather than lifting weights.”

Amateurism was abandoned largely because of the advent of satellite television. The worth of football’s television rights increased sevenfold when Sky became involved and when the major southern hemisphere unions did a deal with Rupert Murdoch’s company in the summer of 1995, a time when Mather media magnate, Kerry Packer, was looking to organise a professional tournament, the IRB knew that it had run out of road.

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The game is bigger than it was in 1995, if not significantly in global terms despite the rise of Japan, but so are the players. And there lies the rub. The world’s most valuable player in August 1995 was Jonah Lomu, who had rampaged his way through that year’s World Cup in South Africa, at least until he bumped into the Springboks in the final.

Lomu became the template, but the reaction to thunderous contact is different now. When the former Wales captain Ryan Jones became the latest player to reveal he had early onset dementia, it hit home that is probably in the past where the future lies.

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