Do rugby players really know just how much the brutality of the sport can take from them?
Featured Image: Hawick RFC
As Spring approaches and domestic rugby season in Scotland winds down, so begins a period of rest and recuperation after a long season that has rendered their bodies almost unrecognisable.
From August to May, 200-plus amateur and semi-professional teams compete across 13 leagues in Scotland. For those 10 months, players can play anywhere between 20-30 games ranging from pre-season training matches to league and cup games, a host of invitational sevens competitions, not to mention promotion, relegation and title play-off series. It is an enormously competitive and physical rugby schedule that can grind even the most physically fit players into dust.
In an age of rugby being focused on being bigger, faster and stronger than the opposition, are players – who in some cases commit to the game for nothing more than fun – fully aware of just how broken their bodies might actually be after such a long and arduous season?
Injuries are a part of rugby. Anyone who has played the game long enough will have experienced a level of physical pain over the course of their career. For some, the uncomfortable creaks and aches don’t last for long and they are back on the field without much trouble. However, for an increasingly unlucky number, rugby is taking more players out of the game and leaving them counting the costs for the rest of their lives.
“You either have to be a physical monster or technically gifted to play at a high level today,” said 21-year old former Hawick RFC fullback Matthew Douglas, who was forced to retire from the game this season following repeated groin, hip and pelvic injuries picked up over a 10-year playing career.
Like so many players, Douglas was hoping he would be the invincible one.
“The doctor basically sat us down and told us that if I was to continue playing it would completely knacker me. I was in with my mum at the time and the two of us looked at each other and I kind of came to the realisation that the game was taking far too much from me and I needed to stop.”
So what is one more season? Or one more hit? From that perspective it is nothing. Looking from the outside, you can almost understand why most players aren’t sprinting away from the brutal game they grew up playing and the one so many love watching.
“Rugby is not an easy sport, it can take so much away from you but at the same time it was what I always wanted to do.” Douglas explained. “Play for long enough you eventually start to see guys you grew up playing with eventually walk away because they basically can’t keep up with the physical [challenge] the game has evolved into.”
“Injuries, no matter how serious they are, always play a part in someone’s decision to either keep grinding away or just leave the game altogether. Some guys can play their entire careers without really suffering much while others can never stay away from the doc or physio.” He added.
Douglas knew the injury consequences when he picked up the game at Hawick High School, in the Scottish Borders, as a youngster and is fully aware the toll the game has taken on his body. Sticking with rugby, even through all the pain, was never a tough decision. The thought of walking away never crossed his mind until that consultation with the doctor, which detailed just how difficult his life could become if he were to continue playing.
“Ever since I was a young boy I wanted to play for Hawick and represent the town. I was lucky enough to get that chance early in my career but I had to fight through a lot of pain over the years to get there,” Douglas recalls.
One thing is for certain – rugby players today are bigger and faster than they have ever been in the history of the sport. The laws of physics illustrate that the force of a tackle, or a hit, depends on three factors: body weight, speed and quickness of the players to stop moving. With the elite level players now getting bigger and faster, those who aspire to reach those heights are bulking up earlier in their careers, resulting in the junior and amateur games becoming increasingly more dangerous.
“The professional guys set the tone and if they are all monsters then all the guys aspiring to be on their level have to be monsters too,” Douglas added, describing what has now become known as the manufactured beasts of rugby.
Research published in The BMJ in March 2016 painted a stark reality for young rugby players looking to make the game a career. The study concluded that rugby players are suffering serious injuries more likely to be seen in road accidents than on a rugby pitch. Players today who are physical marvels are coming up against others who may not be on the same physical level, leading to the natural consequence of injuries, but in today’s game these injuries are much more severe.
“Today’s game is so physical. Boys still feel the effects of a Saturday game on a Tuesday night. They are all seeing club doctors or physios to help get their bodies right for the next game. It takes a lot to just get on the pitch now at Premiership one level,” continues Douglas.
“The tackles some of these boys put in are crazy but that’s the direction the game has gone. It was always a physical, dangerous game, it is just that bit more physical and dangerous now because guys know how to build muscle and do it faster than ever before. They come to the game so strong and physical some guys, who have natural rugby talent, just fold because they can’t keep up with them.”
Echoing Douglas’s comments on just how different players look, train and play today, is former Newcastle Falcons, Edinburgh Rugby and Scotland International Scott MacLeod.
“The game as I knew it is fundamentally changed,” said MacLeod, who retired from playing last season at the age of 37 after his doctor advised against getting a third surgery to repair knee ligament damage because he would be a high risk for arthritis later in life.
“I walked away from the game having achieved a lot. The doctors gave it to me straight and when they said there was a danger of arthritis later on in life if I had surgery to repair my knee, that was enough for me to say my goodbyes. It was taking too much from me simply because the game had changed so much.
“When I first started at the age of 13 I was skin and bones, there was nothing to me, but the guys I was coming up against weren’t exactly sculpted marvels, they were just regular boys, so I was able to grow naturally and use my talents to climb up in the game. Today, it’s a whole other game. Boys are coming to the game after years of gym work and they are manufactured wrecking balls. They are beasts and the boys who have the natural talent for the game, but are not physically there yet, are just unable to keep up. They either walk away from the game or suffer enough injuries that they are forced to. The game now is about size, not talent, and that is dangerous.”
Now an assistant coach at his former club Newcastle and Hawick RFC, who play in the top amateur division in Scotland, MacLeod has a front row seat in seeing just how much the game has changed and how hard it is now to avoid serious injury.
“There are mismatches everywhere on the pitch, even at the top levels of Scottish and English rugby,” continued MacLeod.
“In our [Hawick’s] last league match of the season against Melrose, not to sound too hard on our boys, but there were instances where it looked like men against boys. Melrose had Edinburgh professional Anton Bresler [who had been assigned to Melrose as he made his comeback from a long-term injury] playing for them and he just looked out of place. You could see he was training morning, noon and night to play rugby. He made it so difficult for a number of our boys and even single-handedly injured two of our boys. He dislocated Kyle Brutnon’s shoulder, with a perfectly legal ruck take-out, and broke Shaun Muir’s jaw with a big hit. He caused all sorts of problems and our boys just couldn’t handle him. The damage he did just reinforces the issues the game has. It is played so differently, even at the top levels of the Scottish game. It is concerning sometimes because the potential for series injury is just so much higher now.”
It is easy to laugh off the question, but given the evolution of the game, is it now time to consider: what if rugby ceased to exist? The injuries suffered by Douglas or forecast by MacLeod and The BMJ are just the tip of the iceberg. It sounds impossible given the game’s popularity, but unless there are fundamental changes in the way the game is played, how injuries are prevented and dealt with, and adequate education on the new standards of the game, it is difficult to see rugby make it to the next decade in its current format.