Rugby is caricatured as a game for hooligans played by gentlemen – and many who have witnessed the physical contests played out during this year’s Six Nations would find it hard to disagree.
But many revel in the more brutal elements of the game – the BBC pundit Keith Wood, for one. The former Ireland captain and rampaging hooker enjoyed playing rugby as hard as any. “I loved the big, smashing part of the game,” he admits. Yet there can be a downside to making, and taking, so many hits. “I got concussed in one game but I played on, and scored two tries.
I have no memory of the tries – or the match.” Some doctors would say Wood has been lucky to come away with no lasting damage as, increasingly, there are concerns about the long-term dangers of head injuries.
One Glasgow neuropathologist Dr Willie Stewart even claims being concussed on the rugby field can lead to dementia. “In any Six Nations weekend one or two players may go on to develop a dementia they wouldn’t otherwise have been exposed to,” he recently told BBC Radio Scotland.
The International Rugby Board has now introduced a new protocol: any player with suspected concussion is taken off the field so a doctor can do a five-minute examination. Only then can they decide if the player can rejoin the match.
Jim McKenna, Professor of Physical Activity and Health at Leeds Metropolitan University, is one of those who is concerned about the long- term effects of knocks to the head during play.
“The problem with concussion is that it’s only after about 24 hours that you start to have a real appreciation of what’s happened. It’s like a time bomb waiting to go off. You have to observe people, because there’s no way of knowing in the short-term how the injury is going to turn out.”
Keith Wood is sceptical about the new protocol: “I’ve spoken to a lot of medics who’ve said they can’t do a proper assessment in five minutes. If you think a guy has been concussed get him off the field; he can’t come back on.”
Ever since the sport became professional in 1995 the top players have undeniably bulked up, but it’s not only the fact that they are using greater force in the tackle that is a problem. Wood contrasts the modern game with how it was when he played as an amateur. “I think there’s less space on the field now, to side- step the other guy. We played more matches but they weren’t as fast or hard – it was more open.”
The explosive arrival of New Zealand’s colossal winger Jonah Lomu 20 years ago marked the beginning of the rise of backs who were as physically imposing as forwards, and even faster – the forwards, meanwhile, just got bigger.
But Wood thinks there are signs that the emphasis on sheer physicality is changing. “New Zealand are the trailblazers in terms of size, and their teams of the past two seasons have slimmed down, to keep their ability to run at full tilt more often. That’s more important than someone who can only smash.”