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Friday 2 December 2016

The game needs to heed call for change

Ireland’s Dave Kearney, watched by brother Rob, is hit hard by French pair Jonathan Danty (left) and Teddy Thomas during last weekend’s Six Nations match at Stade de France. He later left the field injured after a high tackle from France hooker Guilhem Guirado Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland’s Dave Kearney, watched by brother Rob, is hit hard by French pair Jonathan Danty (left) and Teddy Thomas during last weekend’s Six Nations match at Stade de France. He later left the field injured after a high tackle from France hooker Guilhem Guirado Photo: Sportsfile

As I left the screening of the controversial movie Concussion, a shocking true story about head trauma injuries in the powerful world of the American NFL, I wonder if some of the concussions I sustained could eventually come back to haunt me.

More worryingly, I overheard a young mother with her two rugby-apparel wearing sons, say "well what did you think of that, do you still want to play rugby?"

I am sure they probably do, but the movie is certainly not pleasant watching for any parent or player, especially in an era where one wonders if the game can continue in its present format.

Then came the ruling during the week that big French second row Johan Maestri had escaped with a rap on the knuckles for his cynical and late shoulder charge on an unsighted Johnny Sexton.

"The independent citing commissioner reported that Mr. Maestri had used his shoulder in making contact with the Ireland outside-half, Johnny Sexton, which resulted in Mr Sexton being knocked off his feet. A warning was issued."

I am not privy to all the camera angles and slow motion replays available to TMOs in every incident on the rugby field, but it would seem that rugby players in the modern game now need to be protected by the laws of the game and the governing bodies more than ever.

Given that rugby has always been a game for all sizes, that makes it fairly unique. With soccer and GAA, most players seem to have similar athletic builds where speed and ball skills are the main attributes for selection.

But in rugby the game has always been about creating mis-matches, in the height of your lineout, the power of your front row or the ability to gain that all-important extra yard over the opposition gain line. It's about power and physique.

Would there be any place for the likes of the dimutive but electric Welsh winger Shane Williams any more? Maybe not, certainly not in the northern hemisphere. We have already seen Joe Schmidt concerned that a multi-talented player like Gary Ringrose may be too light for international rugby and needs some more physical development, and in many ways I have to agree.

For years in this country and others, rugby coaches walked down the line at the start of a season and told you what position you would be playing in. In my day, after enjoying the luxury of being an aspiring young representative centre, I was told in no uncertain terms after a summer growth spurt that the following year I was to be a second row, complete with a season of heaving and grunting in the scrums and cauliflower ears for life.

Most important

Size has become the single most important factor in certain positions. In the mid 1980s I played with the all American winning rugby side OMBAC in San Diego. The American gridiron players were fascinated with the game, to such an extent that often some who went on to play professionally with the San Diego Chargers would sneak down on their day off to train with us.

We even had one ex-professional American player convert to rugby in his 40s. But they still couldn't understand why we didn't wear padding and helmets.

The game needs to change, with more emphasis on speed, skills, sleight of hand and better appreciation of where the space is at. The team in possession needs to be given more latitude, and the rugby league type defences and line speed that most teams now prefer has even taken away the advantage of having the ball, in many instances.

Referees need to be more vigilant at watching the offside line. Even last week, I counted numerous times where the defending team looked at best flat, at worst creeping up when the referee had his back turned.

I was speaking to a man who is coaching his son's under 12 team last weekend, and he said that that using the new softer tackle rules (nothing above the waist) allowed even the smaller boys to enjoy the joys of off-loading and running with the ball.

It is where the change must come, and teams must learn from the likes of the Japanese or the Argentineans at the last World Cup. That is now the way forward - less running directly into bodies and more into space. Let's free the game up again.

As the Irish front row came under severe pressure last week and the French scrum ground out a pretty uneventful but powerful one-point win, veteran Irish tight head prop Mike Ross suddenly became Joe Schmidt's most valuable asset once again.

With Marty Moore leaving and given the current injury crisis, provided the 35-year-old anchor is half fit he will surely be included against England in a week's time.

But as Ross took the field for Leinster in the Pro 12 last week, another Irish player was staking his claims on the other side of the world in my old home town of Canterbury, New Zealand.

It is home to possibly the best professional rugby franchise in the world, the Crusaders. And they noticed what the Irish provinces had not, the talents of an ex-Irish schoolboy tigthead prop and promising young Blackrock College shot-putter, Oliver Jaga.

Jaga, a 6ft 3 inch, 116 kg lump of a man, was named as one of the replacement props for the Crusaders in their pre-Super Rugby warm-up win against the Queensland Reds and as a result, the New Brighton club player has joined the larger Crusader's squad.

Word from my coaching spies is that he is one to watch, and knowing that the ever vigilant Schmidt does not miss a trick, watch this space.

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