Rugby World Cup more physical and more dangerous than ever

The early stages of the 2015 Rugby World Cup have certainly been eventful, but a number of issues have arisen within this short space of time, arguably the most important of which being whether or not the Dan Biggar shuffle is now a legitimate dance move.

Even so, this World Cup has proven that the gap between “developed” rugby nations and “developing” nations has narrowed. For example, in the 1995 contest, New Zealand beat Japan 145–17 and four years ago Wales defeated Namibia 81–7.

The 2015 tournament, however, has seen Japan secure a 34-32 victory over South Africa, Georgia defeat Tonga and Namibia score 14 points against New Zealand. Four years ago this simply would not have happened. This World Cup, more than any other, has shown that the professionalism and skill of the developing nations has started to equal their more developed rivals. The days of the 100–0 scorelines and guaranteed victories are almost extinct.

As increased levels of professionalism, and therefore heightened unpredictability, make these games more thrilling, for players the reality is an unprecedented level of physicality and serious injury.

The tally of injuries in this contest has already equaled 2011’s entire tournament injury list. So far 14 players have sustained injuries; 11 are ruled out of competing, seven need surgery and the Springboks’ captain retired due to a broken jaw. The Rugby Player Welfare Federation has found that the severity of injuries has continually increased since 2007. But why is this World Cup so brutal?

One cannot simply blame bad luck; the answer lies within the squads themselves. As professionalism has grown so have the players. The era of small, nimble Peter Stringer-esque scrum-halves and the barely six foot front rowers is over. Today players are simply bigger and faster, the Welsh winger George North being an example. North is six foot four, weighs 18 stone and sprints 40 metres in under five seconds.

The physical impact of being tackled by someone like this is phenomenal, but the point is that players like North are not rare anymore. The RPWF has published findings that confirm a positive correlation between the growing stature of players and the severity of injuries, and this World Cup has done nothing to contradict the RPWF’s worrying findings.

The most contentious issue to appear during this tournament is that of scheduling. Given that the game has increased in physicality, rest periods have become crucial. Sports doctors cite at least a week at being an acceptable length of time for recovery, but that is not the case in this tournament.

For instance, Japan played a Springbok side who are famous for their intensity. Four days later Japan’s next game was against Scotland – a team that sports the biggest pack in Northern hemisphere rugby. 92 hours is nowhere near the week cited by medics to recover, especially after such intense matches.

Moreover, because players are tired they are making mistakes and in international rugby mistakes mean injuries and when faced with players like George North, injuries will not be minor. This is another reason why we have seen so many injuries in this tournament.

A new generation of rugby is emerging; one that will see more closely contested games due to the breaching of the gap between the developing and developed. This tournament has also shown that a new breed of player has evolved since rugby’s professionalisation. However, this contest has highlighted some serious issues.

As rugby gets more competitive, players get bigger and match intensity grows, the amount and severity of injuries has increased. The role and managing of fatigue is now a crucial aspect of the game.

These issues have yet to be fully addressed by any world rugby organisation but they are issues that will be of growing concern in forthcoming years and if not responded to correctly will break rugby union.

Image courtesy of Stewart Baird.

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