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Rugby’s future under threat as more people ask is it worth the risk

The very things that make rugby so enthralling also threaten to cut the ground from underneath it

During the countdown to Saturday evening’s Ireland v South Africa clash only rugby’s most myopic fans can dismiss an ominous sense of the clock ticking on the game’s long-term sustainability.

Last month’s Irish Times headline was unambiguous – ‘Study finds rugby players 15 times more likely to be diagnosed with motor neurone disease.’

Some of rugby’s constituency might be able to casually dismiss the implications of such a frightful statistic, although they must be in a minority.

The survey carried out of former Scottish rugby international players also found they were three times more likely to suffer from Parkinson’s disease and twice as likely to get dementia.


It adds to mounting scientific data of how contact sports such as rugby produce rates of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) that are multiples of what exist among ordinary civilians.

The dire outlook for ex-players like England’s World Cup winner Steve Thompson and the former Welsh captain Ryan Jones, both of whom have been diagnosed with early onset dementia, appears to be chilling evidence of what years of brutal contact and concussive impacts can produce.

Such considerations obviously won’t be to the fore during coverage of today’s game. As matches go, they hardly get more shopwindow than a clash between the world’s number one ranked team and the visiting world champions.

This is rugby as elite competition in a corporate context showing the game off in all its ferocious, full-throated, flame-spouting finery with stadium noise muffling much of the reality of collisions between highly conditioned professional athletes.

Even those of us immune to much of the game’s charms can admire the commitment. But no kind of expertise is necessary to ponder its potential cost, or the increasingly baleful circumstances in which that elite level in particular now operates.

Rugby is Irish sport’s canary in the mine when it comes to CTE. Across the Atlantic, American football has drilled further for longer and found nothing good when it comes to long-term results of repeated impacts on the brain. But in this part of the world, rugby is largely scrambling in the dark.

A recent World Rugby conference pointed to a lack of hard facts when it comes to long-term consequences of head injuries. It came under fire for that, perhaps even unfairly, because scepticism towards any kind of orthodoxy is often no bad thing.

Such political nuances are mostly useless, however, to players either currently at the coalface of top-level professional rugby, or those who have been there before. Because only the witless or the wilful can ignore this atmosphere of foreboding that is increasingly enveloping the game.

The capacity of players and fans to compartmentalise what is and isn’t important at any given time can never be underestimated. But pervasive underlying worry about the potential long-term consequences of head injuries has burrowed into the consciousness and isn’t going away.

It’s hardly confined to professional players either. Hits and concussions occur at all levels. Getting older can be fretful enough for anyone anyway, even without extra layers of introspection about your neurological health.

Why risk it in the first place? More importantly, why expose their kids to any risks?

The world governing body argues there’s a lack of concrete evidence. But even if the rise of CTE cases really is some grisly coincidence, the inevitable conclusion some people will come to is why risk it in the first place? More importantly, why expose their kids to any risks?

Pointing that out gets dismissed as alarmist. It’s usually accompanied by valid reminders of the counter benefits youngsters get from playing any team sport as well as the gulf between playing for fun and playing for money.

Except, there is a link. It’s largely an intangible one, and to do with fluffy concepts such as aspiration, but it is there. And that spells bad news because it’s difficult to read headlines such as the Scottish survey and not ask if it is fundamentally worth the risk in the first place.

It’s an existential question cutting to the very heart of the game.

Official responses to date have largely revolved around changes to rules on tackling and head injury assessments as well as attempts to reduce contact levels, particularly when teams are in preparation.

They carry an uncomfortable suggestion of tinkering around the edges, half-hearted attempts to reduce the physicality of a game fundamentally rooted in physicality.

Ultimately, some effective equilibrium may be established between welfare and risk although the exasperation that arises when rules around tackling get strictly applied by referees, for instance, underlines the scale of that task.

Such tension though is reflective of the fraught atmosphere bubbling underneath the surface all the time. The very things that make rugby so enthralling also threaten to cut the ground from underneath it.

If risk is part of the appeal when does the price get too expensive to consider paying it in the first place?

It’s a question increasingly being asked within the game although it is responses among the wider public that will determine the long-term future. A sport’s overall health is determined by how attractive a proposition it is for the next generation. Rugby has a fight on its hands.

Debate about the long-term consequences of head-trauma will only increase over the coming years. Headlines never tell the full story, but they represent its broad thrust. Right now, too many headlines spell nothing but bad news for a sport increasingly uneasy about itself and its future.