By David de Winter – Sports Editor
World Cups. They’re meant to be festivals of sport, celebrating all that is good about top-level competition. Sometimes they’re dreadfully disappointing (Italia 90 was rubbish as a spectacle) and sometimes they exceed everyone’s wildest dreams (RWC 2003, if just for the New Zealand v Wales match). So how is England 2015 faring?
Pretty good. On the whole, the rugby has been entertaining, with some compelling fixtures (England v Wales, New Zealand v Argentina) punctuated by the odd upset (Japan beating South Africa, Georgia overcoming Tonga). The crowds have been wonderful and the decision for the tournament to visit some of rugby’s heartlands (Exeter, Gloucester, Leicester) alongside less familiar locations (Brighton and Birmingham) was a masterstroke by the RFU and IRB. The only downsides have been the performance of the home nation and the alarming number of injuries.
Every World Cup needs a strong performance from the home nation. Unfortunately, Saturday’s defeat to Wales leaves England’s prospects of qualifying for the quarter-finals in the balance. What was most worrying was the way they let the game slip from a seemingly dominant position. None of the really great teams cede a 10 point lead with 20 minutes to play and certainly not in the naïve manner England did. Penalty after penalty was conceded, often for the same offence (off-feet at the ruck) and their failure to adapt was their eventual downfall.
Yes, in hindsight Robshaw’s decision to kick for the corner with three minutes to play and three points in arrears was questionable, but with England’s strong forward pack, the decision was definitely a valid one. Plus, they should never have found themselves in that situation anyway. Therefore, Australia on Saturday night takes on even greater significance. The Wallabies were lethal in dispatching Uruguay on Sunday and with an improved scrum and a devastating backline, they will be an even sterner test than the Welsh.
The number of injuries at this World Cup has been a major talking point and is indicative of the wider current discussion about player welfare. If you think the size of rugby players is getting ridiculous (I do), then remember that rugby has only been professional for 20 years. Think what professional rugby players could look like in 20 years’ time. You only have to look at the likes of Uruguay and Namibia to see the obvious discrepancy in bulk between the semi-professionals and the top nations.
Now I know that rugby’s mantra is “bigger, faster, harder, stronger,” but with such a marked increase in size, players are struggling to cope with the impact and collisions of these huge bodies coming together. You only have to look at the vast injury lists. Wales have five first-choice backs out injured for the entire tournament. Yes, the modern-day rugby player is fitter and stronger than previous generations, but is this obsession with size killing rugby? Is it bad luck, or is it that the increased number injuries in the modern game are the start of a worrying trend?
23 year-old winger George North was at a point where he had 4 concussions within five months earlier this year and was at a point where retirement from the sport was a real possibility. Making rugby safer and injury prevention is of paramount importance for the IRB, otherwise we could end up in a situation where players have five year careers, 10 at most. With the number of injuries increasing, big tournaments will inevitably be starved of the top players, which could drive fans and potential sponsors away.
On the subject of rugby’s obsession with bulk, I came across the following article (http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/rugby-union/34314851). It makes for interesting reading. I am not suggesting, and neither is the author, that there are any drugs cheats playing at the World Cup (although the odds would suggest otherwise). It is just worrying that an increasing number of junior rugby players feel the need to use artificial means to succeed as a professional. Rugby is in danger of going down the path cycling did in the 90’s and 2000’s, where young riders would dope in order to get noticed by professional teams. Rugby has always been a sport that has a happy combination of skill and physical prowess and it should always be that way. It seems, however, that nowadays, size really does matter the most.