Some pieces leap easily off the keyboard. Others cause your fingers to stiffen and any exuberance to drain away instantly. No rugby correspondent ever wants to write certain columns, and this is one.
In many ways, too, the searing testimony of Steve Thompson, Alix Popham and Michael Lipman, so brilliantly told in these pages over the past two days by Andy Bull, have already laid bare the extent of the sport’s predicament.
There are the potential legal ramifications and the wider outlook for the game’s future to consider but right now it is impossible to escape the human dimension. In this job you learn to cherish the good guys and Thompson has always belonged in the front row of any life-enhancing first XV.
I have not met Popham in person but used to admire his energy and spirit from afar. Lipman? Years ago, entirely by chance, I found myself giving an impromptu lift to him and his Bath colleague Steve Borthwick after a night match in Bristol, the pair of them wedged tight in the back seat of my less-than-spacious car.
Both players were injured at the time but much looking forward to getting back out there and resuming their relentlessly tough trade. I well remember wondering how best to kick-start the conversation and asking Borthwick whether rugby was as demanding a career as it looked. There was a lengthy pause before he replied but we were almost back in Bath by the time he had finished. He talked of his deep love for the game, his good fortune to be earning a living from it and how relentless hard work and a bit of pain was simply a part of the deal.
Lipman said little but did not disagree with a word. And now here we are, faced with irrefutable evidence that their profession can have a chilling sting in its tail. Lawyers say up to 110 middle-aged former professionals are suffering from symptoms of neurological impairment. All of us who have spent years assuming we were writing about a mere game, not a matter of life and death, have felt the same creeping dread. Working in the “toy department”, as Fleet Street sports desks were once known, has never weighed so heavily.
And, right there, is rugby union’s biggest problem. Clearly the professional sport could be bankrupted. It could easily become unrecognisable for safety reasons. Worst of all, though, is the ultimate nightmare: that even diehard fans start to feel uncomfortable playing or watching rugby at any level. Or that parents, instead of perceiving the game as fun, character-building and life-enhancing, see only the dark side of the moon.
At this point it has been customary to wheel out the usual caveats: the game is safer than it was, the authorities are doing their best, the players knew the risks etc. Suddenly, none of that feels remotely good enough. If the game is in rude health, how come recently active players are forgetting their wives’ names and experiencing uncontrollable mood swings? How do we square that with “the game has never been better” proclamations? Could it be just the tip of a Titanic-sized iceberg?
We can only hope this is the wake-up call the game, until now, has mostly opted to sleep through. If you want the evidence laid out by an expert, go and buy Knife in the Fast Lane, the outstanding book by Bill Ribbans, an orthopaedic surgeon for 40 years and Thompson’s former doctor at Northampton. One particularly sobering chapter is entitled “Scrambling the Egg” and, sadly, it has nothing to do with cooking the perfect brunch.
Ribbans begins by quoting the former Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi: “Football is not a contact sport. It’s a collision sport – dancing is a contact sport.” He then dives straight into the nitty-gritty: umpteen instances of dazed players who wrongly stayed on, grim injury analysis – there is some research that suggests sportswomen may be more prone to head injuries and concussion than their male counterparts – and the game’s changing nature, particularly the increasing number of collisions.
“Rugby is an exhilarating game that has changed and we must change with it,” Ribbans concludes. “Now is the time.”
His most arresting line – “It could be argued that the game turning professional in 1996 was the worst thing that could have happened in terms of player welfare” – may soon reverberate around courtrooms worldwide.
Ribbans also quotes Dr James Robson, the British & Irish Lions doctor after the brutal second Test against South Africa in Pretoria in 2009 when five Lions players were detained in hospital. “The balance is wrong between power and skill,” Robson warned. “We are reaching a level where the players have got too big for their skill levels.”
Move forward to now and the importance of dislodging the ball in the tackle, the exposed “jackal” at the breakdown, the frightening clearouts and a general lack of space have combined to make things ever more problematic. What price the undoubted advances in sports science, training load and head-injury awareness if the number of collisions keeps rising?
It is not being alarmist to observe that, if rugby of either code wishes to endure, the frequency and intensity of those so-called “hits” has to diminish. Some measures are obvious: reducing contact in training, allowing fewer replacements to encourage more fatigue and space, revisiting weight categories at junior level. More radical ideas, such as cutting the number of participants to 12 or 13 or only permitting tackling below the waist, may have to be embraced.
“Listen to the science” is a familiar modern cry. In rugby it is about time people started listening more intently to the players.