“Saving Rugby Union: The Price of Professionalism” by Ross Reyburn. You may have noticed recently that there has been considerable attention paid to the number of injuries sustained in contact sports such as football, rugby and boxing. Our regular book reviewer John Morris gives us his take on a book dealing with rugby union’s current state.
Thuggery and Dirty Play
Reports have focused primarily on rugby union due to its increasingly highly physical nature. The amount of thuggery and dirty play has undoubtedly lessened due to introducing the video referee, citing and new tackling laws. The increase in size and speed of the players has, however, meant that injuries still occur all too often.
There has also been an expansion in female participation at school and club level. Nevertheless, there has been a reduction in male participants at “grassroots” since the introduction of professional teams. The increasing number of injuries caused by collisions and impacts has exacerbated this.
Gareth Davies, the former chairman of the Welsh Rugby Union, comments: “What is happening to a player’s muscular set-up is not natural. Twenty-one years on from the arrival of professionalism, I think we are probably paying the price!”
The Challenges Facing Rugby Union
The challenges facing rugby union in the current climate feature in Saving Rugby Union: The Price of Professionalism, a highly thought-provoking book by Ross Reyburn (Y Lolfa).
In an insightful analysis, the author uses comments by eminent players, coaches, medical experts and others involved in the game to discuss “the issues that need urgent solutions”. They ask questions like:
- “What is the point of a scrum if you have crooked feeds” (Jeremy Guscott); and
- “Do we need to go back to injury replacements only” (Warren Gatland)
Many commentators also consider that rugby union at the professional level has lost its sparkle. In particular, they note the increase in aimless kicking, too many stoppages and replacements reducing the natural fatigue elements of the game.
No Stone Unturned
The author leaves no stone unturned. He conducts a wide-ranging review of the critical issues affecting the modern game of rugby union, described by some as a “marriage of rugby league and American football”. He emphasises that the upsurge in severe and, on occasions, life-changing injuries due to the emphasis on physicality and the “concussion crisis” needs urgent addressing.
Readers will realise from Ross’s comments that there needs to be a “wind of change” in the game. He advocates a return to passing, handling and beating opponents by skill or speed – remember Shane Williams or Gerald Davies?. This approach is entirely in contrast to the current emphasis on physical power, contact and ball retention, “box kicking” and the plethora of forward-dominated attacks.
He discusses the innovative style of rugby advocated by Carwyn James and John Dawes, for example. These coaches aimed to re-create excitement and enthusiasm for spectators and greater safety for players.
Rugby enthusiasts will gain particular insight on several issues affecting the modern game:
- crooked feeds by scrum-halves into scrums;
- the phenomenon of “strength building in gymnasia” resulting in a distortion in the skill/power balance and an increased incidence of injuries;
- how problems with slow ball from breakdowns restrict attacking sides;
- an increase in the number of substitutes, particularly “battering ram forwards”, negating the “fatigue factor”;
- problems that rule makers, coaches and referees need to address to make the game more exciting for spectators and safer for players;
- the mismanagement of rugby union in the professional era.
In conclusion, this book is an excellent analysis of the modern game and highlights the changes needed to “save” rugby union. Ross stresses the importance of making the game less dangerous and more appealing to young people and adults to play at “grassroots level”.
About the Author
Ross Reyburn is a freelance writer and lifelong student of rugby history. He was a feature writer with the London Hampstead and Highgate Express (1967- 74) and The Birmingham Post (1975-2003). His previous books include Jonah (JM Dent, 1983), the official biography of squash legend Jonah Barrington
co-written with Michael Emery, The Great Rivals: Oxford versus Cambridge (Pitkin, 2010) and The Man Who Changed the World of Rugby: John Dawes and the Legendary 1971 Lions Tour (Y Lolfa), 2013). His freelance features have appeared in The Guardian and History Today magazine.
About the Reviewer
John T Morris played rugby for Dudley College, GWR (Ealing) and Aberystwyth University before injury cut short his “playing days”. He specialises in fitness training to improve speed, strength and, stamina. John was a fitness coach at Wrexham RUFC and a fitness consultant with the WRU. He was also a weight training coach at the Queens Park centre.
Title: Saving Rugby Union
Author: Ross Reyburn
Publisher: Y Lolfa, 2020
Length: 208 pages
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