x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Bloodier than ever

Rugby's problem is that it offers infinitely more possibilities for skulduggery than football, an issue not properly addressed when the game turned professional.

When Martin Johnson announced his squad to face Australia next Saturday, he had to do so deprived of at least 26 senior players.
When Martin Johnson announced his squad to face Australia next Saturday, he had to do so deprived of at least 26 senior players.

Rugby, it used to be said, was "a thug's game played by gentlemen" whereas football was "a gentleman's game played by thugs." This always struck me as a fairly dodgy premise, and in this era of ultra-professionalism I think it is one we can ditch once and for all. There are opportunities for gentlemanly behaviour in both sports, and they are just as likely to be taken in football as in rugby.

Believe it or not, every week you see footballers help an opponent to his feet without giving him a crafty kick or an earful of abuse. At the same time, under cover of a ruck, or in the sanctity of a tackle, all manner of dark deeds take place on the rugby field. Rugby's problem is that it offers infinitely more possibilities for skulduggery than football, an issue not properly addressed when the game turned professional.

The Bloodgate scandal was confirmation, if needed, that the gentlemanly days had passed, and more effective policing of the combat was needed - a view reinforced by the epidemic of injuries crippling the English game. When England coach Martin Johnson announced his squad to face Australia next Saturday, he had to do so deprived of at least 26 senior players whom he might have considered. We can probably expect more withdrawals from his 32-man squad before the game.

In fact, if you can play at prop and have your boots and an airline ticket handy, make sure Johnson has your number, and stay close to the phone. Wales and New Zealand are similarly afflicted. Without analysing injuries, it is clear, just as American football discovered some years ago, games could be won by stopping playmakers by whatever means possible within the rules of the game, so rugby is concentrating on defence more than ever before.

Wrestling, martial arts and American football have all been plundered for techniques to make defence in rugby more effective. Rarely do I watch a match in the Heineken Cup or the Guinness Premiership on TV without wincing at some of the tackles. A major cause of injury, especially the knee and ankle problems so prevalent at the moment, is the collapsed scrum. This arises when one team get the upper hand, and the other see their options as either ceding possession or bringing the whole thing down. Because training regimes these days focus on making players bulky and muscle bound, knees and ankles are vulnerable when this happens.

British Lions doctor James Robson says players spend too much time in the gym, creating more of an athlete than a rugby player. "There is a lot of pressure on young guys to be stronger, faster, and fitter," he says. "But you are trying to create rugby players, not gym bunnies." The stronger, faster and fitter players, of course, are responsible for the crunching tackles that cause many of the shoulder and head injuries being suffered, and one way of nibbling at the edge of this problem would be to adopt the idea pioneered in Australia's NRL of using two referees.

The game is simply too fast and there is too much going on these days for one pair of eyes. As rugby union has already adopted many of league's better ideas, there should be no objection. It is important for the future of the game to swing the balance back towards attacking rugby, and to have your best players on the pitch, not on the treatment table.

Where there is life there is hope. Football fans, more than anyone, should remember this,especially the West Ham fan who was watching West Ham v Arsenal on TV last Sunday. With Arsenal leading 2-0, and playing not just like they were in a different league, but from a different planet, he decided his time may be better spent painting the garden shed. So depressed was he by the disparity in skill between the two teams, he could not even bear to listen on the radio, and put on his favourite Tony Bennett CD instead. Imagine his surprise to find later that evening that hisbeloved Hammers had defied the odds to pick up the most surprising point of the season. Next time my wife can paint the shed herself.

There are few lonelier quests in sport than trying to achieve fame as a British tennis player. Occasionally, an Andy Murray comes along and stirs interest but, for the publicity they get, most of them may as well be in the witness protection programme. Congratulations, therefore, to Robert Dee who boasts on his website of his worldwide fame. Dee has achieved this by being wrongly described in hundreds of newspapers as the worst tennis player in the world. Those papers reported that Dee had lost 54 matches in a row, but failed to mention that he had justapplied to International Tennis Federation tournaments. He had won several other matches in Spain, where he is based. As a result, he has received apologies and damages from countless newspapers. They are listed on his website, together with a photograph of a cheque from the BBC. Who says British tennis players never win anything? mkelner@thenational.ae