It is a sure sign of having too much time on your hands when you start writings Letters to the Editor on the subject of sport. Perhaps it is that the horrific shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown or the continuing Eurozone dance of death are simply too depressing, and we need some light relief. Certainly sport has been one of the few highlights in Irish life in recent times, and rugby has been a large part of that success. However the prosaic truth is that I am sad enough to write Letters to the Editor on all manner of topics, and only the most trivial tend to get published (in an edited form).
On a weekend of Heineken hell, all four Irish provinces were defeated in the Heineken European Rugby Cup. All were reasonably good performances against formidable opposition, but there is no hiding the structural flaws in Irish rugby: we were bullied up front in each match. We simply don’t breed forwards big and powerful enough.
Who knows whether this is a steroidal deficiency or a genetic inheritance, but it is clear that small is no longer beautiful in top-class rugby. Short of a eugenics programme, it is not clear what the solution is.
Matches are decided by referees giving penalties to teams whose scrum is deemed to be trundling forward and by high kicks followed up by marauding beasts. Not the most exciting fare if you are looking for intricate running and handling skills, but the rules and their interpretation will hardly be changed to suit “smaller” nations unless TV earnings are effected.
Anyone got any 6ft 10in, 20 stone, muscle-bound monsters in their extended global family?
Anyway, that is my excuse, and I am sticking to it. Ireland has had a lot of success in the European Rugby Cup in recent years with Munster winning in 2006 and 2008, and Leinster winning in 2009, 2011 and 2012, and so it ill behooves us to start whinging when things go less well. But the rise of the rugby behemoth has been one of the most startling trends in recent seasons, and could threaten the rise of the sport as a truly global game appealing to players of all sizes, shapes, and range of skills.
Colin Meads, the preeminent forward of his time (1957-1971) was a mere 1.92M or 6′ 3″ and he played at second row, or lock, traditionally populated by the largest players on the team. Now Mike Philips or Conor Murray the Welsh and Irish scrumhalves are the same size, and scrum half is traditionally the position populated by the smallest players on the field. Now, a pack of 8 forwards typically weighs over 900KG and very few measuring under 1.90M need apply. The power generated by the collisions between such packs of forwards is fearsome and it is not unusual for 25% of a clubs professional players to be injured at any one time. Who, in their right minds, would want their children to play such a sport?
The trend towards giant-ism has resulted in many European clubs importing bigger players from the pacific islands, Argentina and South Africa to make up their rosters, to the detriment of rugby both in those countries and to the development of home grown talent in Europe. It also results in many players being tempted to use creatine or muscle bulk enhancing anabolic steroids to enhance their chances of progressing in the game. The use of such substances is of course denied and the authorities claim to have effective drug testing regimes in place. Nevertheless there is a widespread belief that the use of steroids is endemic.
My Letter to the Editor only makes an oblique reference to “steroidal deficiency” being a possible cause of the relative size disadvantage of Irish rugby because there is very little hard evidence to go on and instances of players being banned for performance enhancing drugs are relatively rare. But then the same could have been said of professional cycling for many years. Let us hope that commercial pressures are not resulting in the rugby authorities turning a blind eye to similar abuse in rugby. A truly great sport could be undermined, not to mention the quality of life and longevity of those who abuse drugs or who suffer injuries as a result of the awful collisions the sport now encourages.
But the best way to reduce the problem is to reduce the incentive to abuse drugs in the first place, by changing the rules which place such a premium on power and size in the current game. Unlike soccer, the rules of rugby have been in continual evolution to improve player safety and spectator enjoyment and further changes to reward pace, elusiveness and passing skills at the expense of brute power would not be difficult to devise. But that would also require addressing the macho culture which surrounds the game and which makes it unattractive to so many. Achieving that cultural change might be the most difficult challenge facing the sport.