This coming Saturday, the 2018 NatWest Six Nations Championship will begin with the same group of teams coming together to battle it out for this year’s title. The ever-competitive tournament is one of the most followed in world rugby and has been for years. A lot of the current interest comes from the strength of the teams. The home nations in particular have risen up the world rankings in recent years, but with that their workloads are up too, and so unavoidably, are their injury counts.
Between the Six Nations’ teams, 44 (and counting) players are currently injured and it’s hardly a surprise when looking at the modern day players’ schedule. It feels like not so long ago we were watching England celebrate back-to-back Six Nations wins, and only a few months since the Lions ended their tour of New Zealand in a joyous, yet anti-climactic fashion. It’s relentless isn’t it? It’s no wonder our players are struggling to keep up. How much longer can rugby union keep explaining away the number of absent players by saying it is the “nature of the game”?
For those looking on, it’s hard to complain: do we really have to watch another six weeks of pulsating, top-class international rugby union? More often than not, yes we do, because we love these marquee sports events, each one billed as the biggest, most competitive yet. Whether it is or not, as consumers we lap it up and it’s hard to say that we’re ever left disappointed. On the other side of the coin, one could argue that this game-filled schedule is robbing the public of the spectacle we’re all hoping for.
The RFU’s priority has to be ensuring that players aren’t subjected to injury-riddled careers as well as protecting them as much as possible from crippling post-retirement conditions. But having read through other Six Nations preview packages, you can’t help but notice the secondary cost to the audience of having 58 players unavailable for selection.
Among this number is a high class back row of Sam Warburton, Sean O’Brien and Billy Vunipola, a host of Welsh backs, including Rhys Priestland, Rhys Webb, Jonathan Davies, the Lions’ Player of the Tour, and Liam Williams, who set up what has to be one of the tries of 2017, on that same tour.
The modern-day version of Rugby Union demands more of the body than ever. The injury count is inarguable. A combination of size, muscle-bulk, game speed, collision count and fixture congestion really is, it seems, taking its toll.
The RFU’s recent findings show that the overall number of injuries decreased in 2014-15 and 2015-16, though the severity of those injuries got worse. They judge severity by the time it takes an injured player to return to playing competitively. In both those two recent seasons the average was 29 days, which is within the RFU’s “expected limits of variation” but only just, and a record high since it started keeping track in 2002, when the average was 16.
According to RFU statistics, 44 professional players have quit the English leagues because of assorted injuries in the last three years. It is a sign of both how severe rugby’s concussion problem is and how well-informed the players now are about the risks.
The All Blacks model of success has long since referenced 15 lessons in leadership, one of which is sacrifice: find something you would die for and give your life to it. Clearly that expectation is catching on, but you do wonder when these players will start to ask themselves: is this really worth it?