‘Rugby is the new boxing’: why rugby is the new bad boy of sport

The game is becoming too dangerous to play, Radio 4's Justin Webb warns

During the rugby union international match between Wales and South Africa at the Principality Stadium on December 2, 2017 in Cardiff, Wales.

It was the winter of discontent: 1978, the fag end of that dark decade, long before we thought much about child safety, or in fact anyone’s safety. One weekend, I turned out to play rugby for Winscombe, a village club in Somerset that, when short of a few players, turned to the local school for help. I was told to play tight-head prop, a position, in those amateur days, given to psychopathic bricklayers.

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I was a 17-year-old hippy with shoulder-length hair and a liking for the Beach Boys. The only thing I remember about the game was that at half-time – as I spat blood into a bucket – my team-mates drank beer out of a watering can. I never played again.

But I have watched rugby all my life. Watched as the appeal of the sport has grown as it embraced professionalism. When I went to see Bath (my home team) play in the 1970s, there were a few hundred stalwarts behind a rope. Now they are building a stadium for 18,000.

On TV, too, the game is booming. At the end of the month BT Sport will restart its schedule of live matches, all weekend, every weekend. BBC Wales will join the party with their own season of live matches.

So what is the problem? The obvious stuff first: the England football team and their manager seem nicer than the England rugby folk. The World Cup football team’s captain Harry Kane is a clean-living role model sort of fellow; Dylan Hartley, the rugby captain, has been cited for biting, punching, eye gouging, and verbally abusing a referee. Whereas England’s footballers seemed so cheery on their Russian World Cup capers, the rugby players made a pig’s ear of a South African tour and ended up fighting with their own fans.

All true. But if that were the only problem – the vulgarity, as one commentator put it – it could be easily fixed. My fear is is a deeper one – that rugby is becoming the new boxing.

If you see a professional player in the street, ask to hit him and see what happens. He will be made of steel. What used to be beefcake is now rockcake. The sport has become removed from the realms of the ordinary-looking people who watch the game; unlike footballers, who look like any other fit young man, rugby players increasingly look like another species.

My bigger fear is that these young men could be dreadfully damaged in later life. The collisions between modern players are each mini explosions of violence. Wonderful Welshman Sam Warburton (a man every bit as wholesome as Harry Kane) was forced out of the game this year when he decided that his body simply couldn’t take any more punishment. He is 29.

Sam Warburton (Getty Images)
Sam Warburton (Getty Images)

And there’s the dark side of the gym – the pressure on players to bulk themselves up. An investigation this year in The Times discovered lax drug-testing standards and a suspicion that banned substances were being used across the game. A source told the paper, “If you look at the side effects of growth hormone [hair growth, more prominent brow and chin, low body fat, high muscle mass] you have basically got many Premiership back-rowers looking back at you.”

Rugby tries to convince itself that it has cleaned up its act. The fights, the beerfilled watering cans and boys playing against men are thankfully gone. And the “footballers are better people” scare will be short-lived.

What matters is that the sport is approachable, attractive to children and their parents and only in freak circumstances harmful to the players. Because, if not, would you want your children or grandchildren to take up the game?

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Justin Webb presents Today on BBC Radio 4