For the first time in 50 years of playing and reporting on the game, I have reservations about encouraging kids to take up the sport. For many years, I would shrug non-committedly when there was a catastrophic injury that afflicted the likes of former England and Leicester prop Matt Hampson. Sympathise, of course, but conclude that such calamity happens in every walk of life and that the good bits in rugby outweigh the bad by a factor of 99 per cent, a view that Hampson himself holds in that wonderfully upbeat, stoic way of his. That position, some might call it naïve, unseeing, blind to horrible realities, is now more difficult to maintain.
On Friday night at Kingsholm, the crowd observed a minute‘s silence for 19-year-old Stade Francais back-row forward Nicolas Chauvin, who died last week after a cardiac arrest brought on by the trauma of breaking his neck in a match a few days earlier. On Sunday afternoon, we stood again at Welford Road as supporters had done at grounds all round Europe across the weekend. But then the ref‘s whistle would blow and it was back to the norm, huge blokes crashing into each other, monstrous hits, no regard for physical safety; bold, fearless play, the very essence of the game.
Except that something no longer sits right. A twinge of conscience, perhaps. A stab of guilt at being so unquestioning. The vicarious thrill of watching finely-tuned, muscle-honed athletes piling in is very much part of the appeal of the sport. It would be easy to move on again, to pretend that all is right with rugby‘s little world. But there has at least to be introspection and scrutiny if there are not to be more Chauvins. One fatality is terrible enough. But young Nicolas was the third in the French game over the last 12 months. It is no longer good enough to play the faux macho card and put it down to occasional happenstance, no different to ignoring calls to stop driving cars just because of a fatal accident elsewhere.
There is more at stake here. The minute silences have to be more than token gestures. The condolences expressed have to be more than fleeting platitudes. The sport has to take a long, hard serious look at itself and work out if it has become too dangerous, too big, too brutal for its own good.
Mercifully, there does appear to be recognition that enough is enough. The reaction in France to these events, triggered by Chauvin‘s passing, has been far more strident and reflective than in these isles, understandably enough. This Thursday, three senior figures in French rugby – Bernard Laporte, Serge Simon and Paul Goze – will meet with World Rugby grandees Bill Beaumont and Brett Gosper in Paris to appraise the situation.
There are no easy answers, no trite recommendations to be drawn, no ban-the-sport-at-all-costs slogans to be rejected. Rugby‘s critics castigate it at any opportunity. Ignore clamour and deal with sensitivities. This is about reflecting on what the game on the field has become and working out if enough is being done to ensure that it is as safe as it is possible to be within those 80 minutes. There has to be serious discussion on the matter, no knee-jerk responses, no simplistic observations and certainly no heads being buried in the sand.
The sport, to be fair, has reacted before to safety issues. Perhaps it took too long but it has at least started to focus properly on concussion, albeit it took media lobbying from journalistic stalwarts such as Sam Peters to keep highlighting concerns.
This is the next step. There was no-one at fault in the match in which Chauvin was injured. All protocols were observed, all due diligence practised. There was no foul play involved. And yet, still, a young man died playing a bit of sport, having a bit of fun.
In this particular incident, Chauvin was hit by a double-tackle. No more than that. The tackle area is the most dynamic, fast-moving, unpredictable and frightening part of the game. Yet the lawmakers have taken steps to reduce the danger levels at that phase. Law adjustments which – fingers crossed – appear to be working. The trials in the U20 Championship to lower the acceptable height of the tackle to the nipple have proved positive, with significant reductions in the amount of concussions reported. There are calls in France for the height restriction to be lowered to ‘belt‘ level. There has also been a view doing the rounds that double-tackles should be banned. That would be a tough one to referee.
Changing laws can work. French sources tell me that incidences of serious injury at the scrum have dropped dramatically since the ‘hit‘ was taken out of the engagement. The same sort of behavioural change needs to happen again.
It will not be a straightforward process. There are other facets in the sport that need addressing, notably the more philosophical one of what we want rugby to be about. A sport of massive collision and eyeballs-out confrontation? Or a sport of guile and skill and sidestepping evasion? The cliché of union being a game for all shapes and sizes has been frequently trotted out without a scintilla of evidence that it is these days. Too much emphasis has been put on brawn and not enough on brain. That needs rectifying, a better balance brought into being.
This feels like a seminal moment for the game. Let us make sure that good things happen as a result.