The Six Natons starts on Friday night. Best rugby tournament in the world, hands down. I really cannot wait to watch it. However, I now work in player welfare for rugby, and so I view the sport through one lens called ‘excitement’, and another called ‘welfare’. In my attempt to bring this ‘binocular vision’ to the sport, I sometimes see double. Or tension.
And so I winced when I read this statement as part of the previews for the Ireland vs England match in Dublin on Saturday:
Now, let me start by coming to the defence of the player making the statement, so you don’t have to! First, it’s not about him, or this specific quote, or this specific match. Second, there’s no way it is ever meant to be taken literally, even 1%. I get it. It’s figure of speech stuff, hyperbole, self-motivational, and arguably, accurate in the sense that it conveys a requirement for performance in the sport.
I read half a dozen other articles previewing the same match, and I must have seen the word “brutal” about 20 times. From current and former players, coaches (Eddie Jones and Joe Schmidt both said it often), media pundits etc.
And I understand – the physicality is part of the appeal, and it’s unquestionably part of succeeding. I think the physical nature attracts a lot of people to the sport. It may even be constructive, important, beneficial.
Physicality is a performance pre-requisite – “win the collisions” (I also wince at this word – they’re tackles, not collisons), “dominate the gainline”, “gain ascendancy at rucks”, and you win the scoreboard, more often than not.
To remove this would be to change the DNA of the sport. What World Rugby is trying to do is achieve change without that particular consequence, and it really frustrates me when people say the sport is being made soft. For one thing, it’s never been harder. For another, “soft” and “safe” are not synonyms.
How culture drives attitudes that prevent successful change
And so the reason I wince at the overuse of “brutal” and language like “killing each other” is that they betray a culture that I think makes any efforts at safety more difficult to achieve. Culture comes from many sources. Language is a powerful contributor, and this language, used so frequently, increases the barrier to change.
To illustrate, a crucial lever for change is the law. Make the dangerous stuff illegal, so that it happens less often, and safety will improve.
But using law to reduce risk requires that referees implement it properly and fully. This is, as any rugby fan will know, a major challenge. It causes major controversy. Part of that controversy is that the interpretation of the law – what is a dangerous or high tackle, for instance, and how should it be punished when it happens?
Because the answer to that question currently resides in the grey areas, without sufficient guidance to the referee, he or she, primarily responsible for wielding our player welfare lever, is currently “vulnerable” to pressures that are largely driven by the prevailing culture. Heck, in some instances, the referee is part of that culture, an active participant in its creation! The end result is a failure to do what is required to actually change behaviour, and thus risk.
What happens, then, is a kind of ‘cultural erosion’ of what is accepted and what is not. Or perhaps, in this context, it is not so much erosion as it is ‘growth’ – extreme language and perceptions drive attitudes, and this in turn creates expectations. Human beings, who are susceptible to forces created by those attitudes and beliefs, may then compromise the attempts to introduce initiatives that may actually work.
So, in my opinion, the greatest challenge facing rugby (and indeed other high-concussion sports) is that of culture. Until the perception that it should be brutal is toned down or dialed back, the success of any attempts at changing behaviour will face significant resistance.
There is too much inertia in the face of an expectation of brutality to successfully implement risk-reduction by subjective human decision-making. If the inertia could be reversed, on the other hand, and the general culture was “safety first”, and “protect the head” or “keep the head out of the game” (to offer a specific example), then every action, every decision, would flow “downhill”, instead of being an uphill battle.