The early stages of the 2015 Rugby World Cup have certainly been eventful, but a number of issues have arisen within this short space of time. For instance, whether or not the Dan Biggar shuffle is now a legitimate dance move.
Even so, this world cup has proven that the gap between “developed” rugby nations and “developing” nations has considerably narrowed. For example, in the 1995 contest, New Zealand beat Japan 145 – 17 and only four years ago we witnessed Wales defeat Namibia 81 – 7. The 2015 tournament, however, has seen Japan secure an historic 34 – 32 win over South Africa. Tonga were defeated by Georgia and Namibia scored fourteen points against New Zealand. Four years ago this simply would not have happened. This world cup, more than any other, has shown that the professionalism and skill of the developing nations has started to equal their more developed rivals. So much so that the days of the 100 – 0 score lines and guaranteed victories are almost extinct.
This is great for the spectator, as the new found unpredictability and increased levels of professionalism makes viewing these game more thrilling, but for the players the reality is an unprecedented level of physicality and of serious injury. The tally of injuries in this contest has already equalled 2011’s entire tournament injury list. So far fourteen players have sustained injuries; eleven of whom are completely ruled out of competing, seven need surgery and the Springboks captain Jean De Villiers retire due to a broken jaw. The World Rugby Player Welfare Federation has found that the severity of injuries for forwards and backs has continually increased since 2007. But why is this World Cup so much more brutal than the others?
One cannot simply blame bad luck; the answer lies within the squads themselves. As professionalism has grown so have the players and the amount of time they spend in training. The days of the small, nimble Peter Stringer-esk scrumhalves and the barely six foot front rowers are over. These days the players are simply bigger and faster. The Welsh wing George North being a prime example. North stands at six foot four and weighs eighteen stone and can sprint forty metres in under five seconds. The impact on the body of being tackled by someone like this phenomenal, but the point being that players like North are not rare anymore. The Rugby player Welfare federation has even published findings that confirm a positive correlation between the growing stature of players and the severity of match time injuries, and this world cup with its vast number of injuries has certainly done nothing to contradict the RPWFs worrying findings.
Finally, the most contentious issue that has appeared during this tournament is that of scheduling. Given that the game has increased in physicality, rest periods have become more important. Sports doctors cite at least a week at being an acceptable length of time for recovery, but that is simply not happening in this tournament. For instance, Japan played a Springbok side whom are well known for their intensity. Four days later Japan’s next pool game was against Scotland – a team that sports the biggest pack in Northern hemisphere rugby. 92 hours is no way near the week cited by sports doctors to recover, especially after such high intensity matches. Moreover, because players are tired they are making mistakes and in international rugby mistakes mean injuries and when faced with the likes of George North fatigue injuries are not going to be minor. This is perhaps another reason why we have seen so many injuries in this tournament.
This World Cup has shown that a new generation of rugby is emerging; one that will see more closely contested games due to the breaching of the gap between the developing and developed. The 2015 tournament has also shown that a new breed of player has evolved since the professionalization of the game. However, this contest has also highlighted some serious issues within the sport. As rugby gets more competitive, the players get bigger, the games get more intense, the amount and severity of injuries has increased, and the role and managing of player fatigue is now a crucial aspect of the game. These issues have yet to be fully addressed by any world rugby organization but they are issues that will be of growing concern in the forthcoming years and if not responded to in the right way will break rugby union.
By Connie GK Morgan