Rugby is play­ing roulette with wel­fare of its bright­est

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - SPORTS - Keith Dug­gan

Still they leave. Dur­ing the week, the Ul­ster flanker Chris Henry an­nounced his re­tire­ment from rugby with im­me­di­ate ef­fect. He said that the sport that had been cen­tral to his life since child­hood had taken its toll on his body. He had to go. He is 34 years old. By any mea­sure, Henry achieved a level of rarely at­tained ex­cel­lence in his cho­sen sport, smoothly pro­gress­ing from Wal­lace to Queen’s to Ul­ster to Ire­land, win­ning 24 in­ter­na­tional caps.

He bowed out with a classy and heart­felt tribute to his wife and fam­ily, to the sup­port­ers and to the game. His exit from the game mer­ited a brief re­spect­ful me­dia pause be­fore at­ten­tion turned to the im­pend­ing glam­our and in­trigue of the au­tumn in­ter­na­tion­als, with Ar­gentina in Dublin this af­ter­noon be­fore the dark, glam­orous cloud that is the All Blacks ap­pears on the hori­zon.

Henry joins the grow­ing list of ath­letes in the prime of their lives left bro­ken by rugby. His for­mer team-mate Jared Payne (33) is now backs coach with Ul­ster af­ter fail­ing to re­cover from a head in­jury suf­fered while play­ing for the Li­ons against Chiefs last summer. The headaches, the gen­eral feel­ing of be­ing un­well, the flar­ing mi­graines wouldn’t leave. The sight of Payne in full flow was rugby at its best but his time was up.

It was the same for De­clan Fitz­patrick (who re­tired at 31), Kevin McLaugh­lin (31), Nathan White (35) and Dave McSharry, the 26-year-old Con­nacht cen­tre who re­tired fol­low­ing med­i­cal ad­vice af­ter a se­ries of con­cus­sions, play­ing 65 times for the prov­ince. Pro­fes­sional sport is a bru­tally for­ward-look­ing busi­ness. Even as the re­spec­tive clubs is­sued press re­leases pay­ing tribute to their de­parted play­ers, the sta­dium was be­ing pre­pared, the tac­tics out­lined, in­juries as­sessed for the next game, the next win.

Flung over­board

There’s some­thing mer­ci­less about these sce­nar­ios in which pro­fes­sional rugby play­ers are cat­a­pulted from their sport, their team-mates and into the real world with­out a sec­ond thought. Through no­body’s fault, they are kind of flung over­board and the ship keeps mov­ing. The dream fin­ish – the crowd ap­plaud­ing its thanks, the re­tir­ing star wav­ing good­bye, the gar­lands and smiles and tears – rarely hap­pens. In­stead, a quiet, som­bre con­ver­sa­tion with a med­i­cal ex­pert, a tough de­ci­sion and it’s over.

Henry didn’t specif­i­cally re­late his re­tire­ment to con­cus­sion; he had suf­fered a mini-stroke in 2014 on the eve of a Spring­boks match and re­cov­ered to play for three more sea­sons. But some­thing told him it was time to go. Henry was a ter­rif­i­cally dili­gent and brave pro­fes­sional rugby player: the kind you find in ev­ery dress­in­groom.

Sam Warburton was a star of the world game: an iconic fig­ure in a charis­matic Wales team. He was the pro­to­type of the sort of ath­lete that has emerged from rugby as it evolved from a game of elu­sion to a game of col­li­sions: 16 stone, ath­letic, ag­gres­sive and play­ing with an in­ten­sity and com­mit­ment that far ex­ceeded fi­nan­cial re­turn or con­tract.

For Warburton, the toils of the game had reached the stage where do­ing over­head lifts in the gym left him with shoot­ing nerve pains through his neck, with con­tin­ual mus­cle sore­ness and joint pain. One of the con­se­quences of be­ing among the best open­side flankers in the world is that Warburton was al­ways in de­mand: for Cardiff, for Wales, for the Li­ons. There wasn’t a game in which he wasn’t needed. So his knees are shot be­fore his 30th birth­day.

Warburton’s en­forced dis­ap­pear­ance from the scene prompted an ad­mis­sion from Agustín Pi­chot, the vice-chair­man of World Rugby, that the game is tak­ing its play­ers to break­ing point: that it is a red flag day. Pi­chot has been a breath of fresh air in the role, starkly out­lin­ing the fi­nan­cial cri­sis fac­ing the in­ter­na­tional game and the un­fair­ness of ask­ing the game’s elite to play so many games for club and coun­try.

Here is some­one of real in­flu­ence ad­mit­ting that there is some­thing in­her­ently wrong with the way rugby treats its best prac­ti­tion­ers. In Septem­ber, Do­minic Ryan told John O’Sul­li­van about the se­ries of head in­juries that ended his rugby life in an in­ter­view that ap­peared on these pages. His ac­count was riv­et­ing and gets to the heart of the con­tra­dic­tions about rugby. Yes, Ryan knows the cor­rect tack­ling tech­nique. But the an­i­mal com­peti­tor within thrived on what he termed “a lack of re­spect for my body”.

Tack­ling hard and of­ten and with no re­gard for his safety was part of his game plan. A se­ries of blows to the head left him with sear­ing mi­graines, dizzi­ness, blind­ing lights: it ren­dered his life suf­fi­ciently hellish for him to make the coura­geous de­ci­sion to leave. When he dis­cussed it with his neu­rol­o­gist in London, he was told that there were play­ers out there with symp­toms worse than him who are still play­ing on.

Who are they? And how are they be­ing al­lowed to play? And is it right to pay in to watch them? The cur­rent HIA pro­ce­dure is a black joke. A player gets an el­bow or an ac­ci­den­tal knee to the head or is smashed in the face with a high tackle. He goes down: maybe he was out cold – “a flick of the lights, the rest of the brain” as Ryan put it. Ei­ther way, he’s un­likely to be think­ing straight when the medic puts the req­ui­site ques­tions to him.

Vul­ner­a­ble sit­u­a­tion

The com­peti­tor in him wants to keep go­ing; the team-mate in him wants to stay on. Maybe he con­vinces him­self. The dizzi­ness will pass. The headache will go. He’s okay. This is the sce­nario in which the team medic has to make a de­ci­sion that could af­fect the short- and long-term health of the player un­der his care. It places both ath­lete and doc­tor in a hor­ri­bly vul­ner­a­ble sit­u­a­tion. At best, it’s a game of chance.

There is some­thing mag­i­cal about au­tumn rugby in­ter­na­tion­als: the wild­ness of the af­ter­noons suits the mood of the oc­ca­sions. New Zealand and Eng­land in Twick­en­ham to­day feels like some­thing more than a mere Test. The in­ter­est in next Satur­day’s game in Dublin will be im­mense. Both week­ends prom­ise scin­til­lat­ing sport. But even as you watch it, when­ever there is a mist­imed or high tackle and you see the jud­der­ing vi­o­lence, the im­pact on the ath­lete, you have to ac­knowl­edge that you are watch­ing a sport that is play­ing roulette with the wel­fare of its bright­est and best.

Rugby union play­ers have never been faster or stronger. Con­se­quently, the avail­able space on the pitch has dis­ap­peared. It is a game of con­stant at­tri­tion and phys­i­cal toil. You hear the words of the con­sci­en­tious ob­jec­tors, such as Dr Barry O’Driscoll, un­cle of that num­ber 13, say­ing calmly and rea­son­ably that world rugby is al­ready in the midst of a cri­sis around brain in­jury: “How­ever the cri­sis may not man­i­fest it­self for some years to come,” he told Gavin Cum­miskey on these pages a few years back. “They have not been hon­est with the pro­fes­sional play­ers and that has re­ver­ber­ated through­out the game.”

What if he’s right? What if his is the voice no­body is hear­ing through the roar of the crowd? What if what we are all en­joy­ing right now turns out is that ac­tual wreck­ing of lives? But then, you know, the All Blacks are out there on the field, crouch­ing into their pro­ces­sional haka and the sta­dium is rum­bling with ex­pectancy and men­ace and then the oval ball is spin­ning through flood­lights: it’s just a game, the essence of win­ter and oh, the hits, the hits.

There’s some­thing mer­ci­less about these sce­nar­ios in which pro­fes­sional rugby play­ers are cat­a­pulted from their sport, their team-mates and into the real world with­out a sec­ond thought

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