In the second Tri-Nations test between Australia and Argentina this month, Wallabies’ back rower Lukhan Salakaia-Loto was given a straight red card for hit on Argentina’s Santiago Grondona.
Repeated replays showed the incident quite clearly. Salakaia-Loto went in high – totally unnecessarily so – didn’t attempt to wrap his arms and his shoulder met Grondona’s chin with considerable force.
Referee Ben O’Keeffe and TMO Angus Gardner barely had to study the footage. “No mitigating circumstances” said O’Keeffe to Salakaia-Loto, brandishing as clear a straight red as you get.
Over on Twitter, however, some had a different view. “World rugby right now. Laugh out loud” tweeted former Glasgow and Scotland 10 Dan Parks, the last of a series of comments where he seemed to be suggesting the game had gone soft.
“Rugby has lost its way. Turn off” was followed by “Joke joke joke. Can’t believe this”. Those were posted before the Salakaia-Loto incident to be fair, but clearly referred to various contact situations in the game.
There’s some irony in this, given that Dan, for all his many virtues as a player, was never that fond of the physical aspect of the game. At least not when he was playing for the Warriors or his adopted nation.
‘Rugby’s gone soft’
But it underlines the attitudes of many to the increased – and still, increasingly dangerous – level and extent of forceful contact in our game. The “rugby’s going soft” brigade.
Yes, even the limited extent in which the force of the game’s collisions has been mitigated – requiring players to keep impacts away from the head, outlawing (successfully) tip-tackles, policing the contest for the ball in the air – is too much for some.
This actually doesn’t bear too much relation to the class action suit raised by several former players suffering dementia issues against World Rugby, first reported by the Guardian. Ten former Scottish players are reportedly joining the group, according to my colleague Rob Robertson of the Daily Mail.
The heartbreaking testimony of former Lions and England hooker Steve Thompson, who now does not recall his moments of glory on the playing field and is has symptoms of early onset dementia, has shaken rugby to the core.
If the pattern of lawsuits by former players against American sporting bodies like the NFL and NHL along similar lines is followed, a considerable financial settlement is likely.
It’s probable that World Rugby will seek to pull all actions together and the various unions will make collective redress through the worldwide body. That’s if it can be proven they were negligent, which is not a given.
This suit, although it requires attention, is already part of the game’s past. But if rugby is to survive as a contact sport, what form will it be in?
The mantra from coaches and governing bodies is with procedures now in place and greater awareness of concussion and impacts, elite rugby is safer than it was in Thompson’s time.
But the physical demands are greater, players are fitter, bigger and stronger, and the tactics mean there are countless more impact situations.
It’s even entered the accepted language of rugby. I was shocked a while back when one senior coach in Scotland talked about the need for more “brutality”. That and “winning collisions” – of course you have to be more brutal to win them – was a good thing.
Let’s take two examples of more recent times. In a Six Nations match against Wales a few years ago, Scotland’s Stuart Hogg felled a Welsh attacker and then leapt to his feet to contest the ball.
He exposed his neck and shoulders to Gethin Jenkins, who arrived at full pace from distance with all his 19 stones of momentum and made full-force contact to clear out Hogg.
Two weeks ago in Dublin, Hoggy again took a defensive position to try and steal possession, neck and shoulders exposed. He was cleared out with frightening force by two flying front-five forwards in Andrew Porter and Iain Henderson.
No messing around in this clearout by Andrew Porter, with Iain Henderson arriving behind him.
Brave from Stuart Hogg. pic.twitter.com/ixnV9weIff
— Murray Kinsella (@Murray_Kinsella) December 5, 2020
Hogg is a full-back and those instances stick in my mind probably because he’s Scotland’s highest profile player. But forwards are taking these kind of forceful “brutal” hits repeatedly, and in midweek training as well.
The growing evidence is that as well as the concussive episodes, repeated impacts are debilitating to future mental health. Heading in football is also being examined in this way.
‘The claim that modern rugby is safe is hogwash’
Therefore the claims of head coaches and unions that modern rugby is safe is hogwash – they don’t know for sure. And a class action suit in ten years’ time won’t have any ignorance alibi.
That could be an existential threat to rugby as a game. We have to start to sort out a way to play that makes it safer.
Modern rugby’s not gone soft, despite what the ranters claim. But it’s really got to get softer.