“If you see a professional player in the street, ask to hit him and see what happens,” Webb writes. “He will be made of steel. The sport has been removed from the realms of ordinary looking people who watch the game.”
Like its padded and helmeted US counterpart American Football, injuries and long-term medical ramifications have become a fixture of the dialogue surrounding rugby in recent years. In July, British and Irish Lions captain Sam Warburton retired aged 29 as his body was “unable to give me back what I had hoped for”.
“My bigger fear is that these young men could be dreadfully damaged in later life,” Webb says. “The collisions between modern players are each mini explosions of violence.”
And, after years of rugby being referred to as the “gentlemen’s game”, Webb thinks the tide is turning in football’s favour.
“The England football team and their manager seem nicer than the England rugby folk,” he writes. “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.”
Webb says “the ‘footballers are better people’ scare will be short-lived,” but warns:
“What matters is that [rugby] is approachable, attractive to children and their parents and only in freak circumstances harmful to players. Because, if not, would you want your children or your grandchildren taking up the game?”
Read Justin Webb’s column in full in the latest issue of Radio Times – available in shops and on the newsstand from Tuesday 14th August