As a fellow hooker, I found Steve Thompson’s story unnerving – Irish Examiner

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‘Treated like a piece of meat’ was one of the more hyperbolic things you might hear in conversations with other players from time to time. It usually came up when lads were in contract negotiations and disclosing the exchanges they were having with other clubs.

It was always interesting to see how open or guarded various people were about these things; some would barely admit their contract was ending, others would be telling the local barista about all the interest they were getting from abroad (the latter were often grossly exaggerated).

The ‘piece of meat’ reference came from an accurate perception that one of the downsides of leaving Ireland was the fact that your welfare becomes less of a priority if you are an import.

In many cases, clubs have paid good money to prise Irish players away from their home clubs and, given so many English and French clubs are privately owned, there is an expectation that you will earn your keep and play through some pain to do so. Sometimes, this leads to players being treated like pieces of meat.

The issue can be particularly bad in France. I remember a chat with one teammate who had previously played at a Top 14 club where he described having to sneak out to the back pitch to do his rehab running when he was returning from an ankle injury.

He had to hide from the coaches because he had learned from bitter experience that in their eyes, “If you can jog, you can run. If you can run, you can train. And if you can train, you can play.”

The rugby community was shocked to read English World Cup winner Steve Thompson’s story this week. As a fellow hooker, I certainly was. To hear someone describe how he can’t remember becoming a world champion — surely one of the greatest moments of his life — at 42 due to early-onset dementia, was unnerving.

England's Steve Thompson is tackled by Scotland's Ross Beattie, during the 2003 Six Nations. He revealed this week that at 42 has early-onset dementia. Picture: Tom Hevezi.

England’s Steve Thompson is tackled by Scotland’s Ross Beattie, during the 2003 Six Nations. He revealed this week that at 42 has early-onset dementia. Picture: Tom Hevezi.

Not least because I spent six years doing the same job as him on the pitch. It served as a stark reminder of how lucky I was to start my professional career a generation later. I’m sure many people of Thompson’s era would hold the belief that they felt like pieces of meat.

Strides have been made in the area of player welfare in recent years and continue to do so. Clubs, for the most part, realise you can’t expect someone to play every single week without paying a price with their availability in the long run.

The rules of the game are constantly being adjusted to make it safer and to minimise damage on the pitch — you could argue this is futile as the frequency and severity of injuries continues to increase, but the effort is being made.

Despite this undeniable progress, a new threat has emerged that I would argue poses a greater risk to the wellbeing of players than anything to do with tackle height, leading with the forearm or using studs at a ruck.

In fact, this threat has nothing to do with the rules of the game at all, and the most sophisticated medical teams in the world can do very little to combat it. What is particularly concerning is that subjecting players to it is a voluntary decision — one that is avoidable.

It is the threat of the never-ending season.

Gruelling 

France has always been the benchmark to measure how gruelling a season of pro rugby can be.

Top 14 finalists usually start their season in August and finish in June, 10 full months later. With 26 league and six European Cup games in a regular-season before play-offs enter the equation, success can often come with a toll.

Racing and Toulouse played 36 competitive games in the 2017/18 and 2018/19 seasons respectively, such was the form they enjoyed in both competitions. Throw a standard three pre-season fixtures on top of that and you’re nearly at 40 matches. It’s a silly number of games to be playing in a year.

This is no longer a uniquely French problem. In October 2018 there was uproar when the RFU announced their plans for the Premiership to run from September to late June. Players dismissed claims from the governing body that this decision was taken with player welfare in mind, and that designated rest periods would lighten the toll — a nonsensical claim, given in-season rest periods aren’t holidays.

After a week to 10 days off, players are back in to train again, regardless of how far away the next game is.

The nature of elite sport means a team can’t just clock off for three weeks and expect to be firing on all cylinders on its return. A few weeks without games will remove the intensity and ferocity of matches from the equation, but the physical and mental stress of the season remains.

At the beginning of last week, IRFU Performance Director David Nucifora stated unequivocally that he and his employer were in favour of the PRO14 expanding to the PRO16 through the addition of more South African teams. 

IRFU Performance Director David Nucifora: Has backed the PRO14 expanding to the PRO16 through the addition of more South African teams. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

IRFU Performance Director David Nucifora

Following the current format, that would bring the number of league games to 24, and the total regular season to 30 games before the knockout stages. Slowly but surely, everything is moving towards the French model — squeeze as much out of players in a single season as you can.

The load on European players is most clearly illustrated by comparing it with that of their southern hemisphere counterparts.

The 2019 Super Rugby season featured 16 regular-season games, played over an 18-week period between February and June. Yes, it’s a gruelling calendar in itself, but the first half of the European season alone is routinely just as bad, if not worse.

There are domestic competitions such as the Mitre 10 Cup in New Zealand that follow the Super Rugby season. Some players play in these, others do not (Test players do not). While the standard of rugby is very high, it is a semi-professional competition that does not make the same demands of the body.

Things were already moving in a worrying direction in Europe. Then Covid happened. Competitions were temporarily abandoned and players trained on their own for months, before returning to face into a season that will last a full year, or more for those lucky enough to go on the Lions tour to South Africa next summer.

Munster reassembled for training in early July. The PRO14 final is slated to take place in late June of 2021.

Fulfilling last season’s outstanding obligations when the new season should have been starting has led to a frighteningly congested fixture calendar ahead. The organisers of the English Premiership appear to have abandoned all reason in their efforts to get everything played, with some clubs playing nine games in 51 days before facing into a new season.

The harsh realities of a dream job

Rugby players are under no illusion about how lucky they are to do what they do. Most have dreamed of playing professional sport from a young age and have had the good fortune and opportunity to see that dream become a reality. They accept that their bodies will take a battering, and that many of them will be forced to stop playing due to injury.

The average career in Ireland is just five years now — and getting shorter.

It’s not hard to think of examples off the top of my head — Jonny Holland, hamstring, at 25; Brian Scott, ankle, at 27; Ronan O’Mahony, broken leg, at 29; Cathal Sheridan, ankle (you would need a paragraph to outline the damage), at 27; JP Cooney, hamstring, at 27.

Many more play through serious pain and will suffer the consequences for decades after.

I dislocated my right hip in the last game of rugby I played.

It was horrifically painful, as you would expect. That operation was my seventh under general anaesthetic in seven years. The first six were in Santry Sports Clinic.

By the time I went for my third, I recognised various nurses and other staff and would say things like, “About time you threw out an old loyalty card isn’t it, ha ha.”

Duncan Casey, training with Munster in 2018. Picture: INPHO/Dan Sheirdan

Duncan Casey, training with Munster in 2018. Picture: INPHO/Dan Sheirdan

While I had particularly bad luck, my story isn’t an uncommon one. A good friend of mine had 10 operations during his career, including five on the same injury. He can’t run anymore.

There is a wise saying in sport — control the controllables. It means you should not waste time and energy worrying about things that are out of your hands. You can’t eliminate risk from rugby. It will always there. What you can do, and what players are entitled to expect, is that governing bodies will control the controllables. The number of games in a season, and the length of it, are controllable. Playing nine games in 51 days is controllable.

Whether players are treated like pieces of meat or not is controllable. The quest for the never-ending season and the determination to grind out as much as possible from players is misguided, dangerous and damaging to the game.

Surely, we want the most talented players of any sport to play it for as long as they can, at the highest level possible, without suffering the tragic long-term effects that Thompson and others now battle on a daily basis?

Rugby is in the headlines for all the wrong reasons once again this week.

It’s time for governing bodies to admit that the current approach to scheduling is inadequate and is putting the safety and wellbeing of professional players at risk.

Until it changes, we can’t pretend everything is being done to prevent anyone else living the same nightmare that too many former professionals find themselves in the middle of today.

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