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Re­sponse to Craig story shows rugby has ma­tured

WHEN deal­ing with del­i­cate mat­ters like men­tal health there is al­ways an el­e­ment of ner­vous­ness about strik­ing the right tone. It was pleas­ing, then, to re­ceive mes­sages from both James Craig, the for­mer Scot­land rugby winger, and his fa­ther Jim, the Lis­bon Lion, say­ing they had been de­lighted with the re­sponse re­ceived to James’ rev­e­la­tions of the dam­age done to him by play­ing rugby.

It would seem that the re­ac­tion has been de­cid­edly bet­ter than that from some of the sport’s ad­min­is­tra­tors to for­mer Her­ald man John Beat­tie’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the sub­ject in his BBC Panorama pro­gramme, broad­cast just ahead of the re­cent World Cup.

One so­cial me­dia mes­sage in par­tic­u­lar stuck in the craw, seek­ing to sug­gest rugby has done bet­ter than other sports in look­ing af­ter its play­ers and that the tim­ing of the pro­gramme had been un­help­ful.

It was, of course, the ideal time to be ex­am­in­ing the is­sue, when the eyes of the world were upon the sport.

The tour­na­ment it­self was a joy­ous cel­e­bra­tion of all that is good about rugby, from good lit­tle ’uns beat­ing good big ’uns on the first week­end as Ja­pan shocked the Spring­boks, to a mag­nif­i­cent fi­nal which was adorned by the sport’s two great­est play­ers bow­ing out in the best pos­si­ble style, and then that won­der­ful Sonny Bill Wil­liams mo­ment, when he gave his win­ners’ medal to an over-ex­cited young­ster who had been treated a lit­tle too harshly by a se­cu­rity guard.

How­ever, there were also re­minders dur­ing it, no­tably when Dan Big­gar re­mon­strated with those lead­ing him off the field dur­ing Wales’ quar­ter-fi­nal de­feat and when Matt Giteau sim­i­larly at­tempted to per­suade his team’s man­age­ment to let him re­turn to the fray dur­ing the fi­nal, that the par­tic­i­pants some­times have to be pro­tected from them­selves.

In the ex­pla­na­tions that fol­lowed there was ev­i­dence that im­por­tant lessons are at last be­ing learned, Big­gar ex­plain­ing that his re­ac­tion had come in the heat of the mo­ment and that he should have paid more at­ten­tion to the medics, while Michael Cheika, Aus­tralia’s head coach, was to ad­mit that he had re­ceived “a gob­ful” from Giteau at half-time but that his hands had been tied by the med­i­cal in­struc­tions is­sued.

The truth is that elite rugby play­ers are brave in­di­vid­u­als full of self-be­lief who take the view that their team’s chances will be re­duced if they are forced to leave the field. But those play­ers are be­gin­ning to understand prop­erly the im­pli­ca­tions of such in­juries, while those man­ag­ing them are be­gin­ning to understand prop­erly their re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.

It has not al­ways been so and rugby has taken rather too long to ad­dress a cul­ture in which pres­sure, whether direct or through in­sin­u­a­tion, was ap­plied to play­ers con­sid­ered to have been in­jured too of­ten with chal­lenges to ‘man up’ or other such id­i­ot­i­cally machismo phrase­ol­ogy which I have heard used by sportswomen as well as men.

As was most re­cently ob­vi­ous in the case of the head in­juries suf­fered by Big­gar’s Wales team-mate Ge­orge North and the out­rage gen­er­ated, there re­mains, un­fairly or oth­er­wise, an im­pres­sion that medics are placed un­der the wrong kind of pres­sure by coaches and man­agers, as well as the play­ers them­selves, to of­fer clear­ance when they should not.

The im­pli­ca­tions for the sport could yet be vast given what has hap­pened in Amer­i­can Foot­ball where the NFL have had to pay out hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars in set­tling a class ac­tion law­suit brought by for­mer play­ers who have suf­fered se­ri­ous prob­lems as a re­sult of their head in­juries.

Just as it did to take the field and run flat out into col­li­sions with much big­ger men, it took great courage for James Craig to speak up as he has. His mo­ti­va­tion was to warn oth­ers of the po­ten­tial con­se­quences of not get­ting, or ig­nor­ing, the right med­i­cal ad­vice.

Oth­ers may yet take mat­ters fur­ther and while the sports lover in me largely hopes oth­er­wise, the shock of lis­ten­ing to the tale of a lad I re­mem­ber as a rare tal­ent when he emerged on the Scot­tish rugby scene, out­weighs such con­sid­er­a­tions.


Lit­tle Chloe, the next gen­er­a­tion of the Craig fam­ily, was over­heard re­cently in mean­ing­ful dis­cus­sion with one of her pri­mary one class­mates who was keen on foot­ball when she of­fered one of those ob­ser­va­tions that was so pro­found it could only have come from one so young.

“My granpa used to be a fa­mous foot­baller with Celtic,” she told him. “. . . but now he’s just a granpa.”

It is help­ful to be re­minded that as su­per-hu­man as the feats of our sports­peo­ple may some­times seem – and the na­ture of that Euro­pean Cup win by a home­grown team re­mains mind-bog­gling when con­sid­er­ing the rel­a­tive re­sources the likes of Inter Milan and Manch­ester United could muster even then – they are just flesh and blood like the rest of us.

There are those who feel Celtic could have done, and could still be do­ing, more for the men who trans­formed their club’s sta­tus in the in­ter­na­tional arena, but that is moot whereas there seems lit­tle doubt that more re­cent gen­er­a­tions of rugby play­ers should have been bet­ter looked af­ter by those who have ben­e­fited from their ef­forts.

TOMORROW Susan Egel­staff

ONCE FA­MOUS: Lis­bon Lion Jim Craig in his hey­day – now he’s “just a granpa”

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