In Review

Rugby World Cup: has it become a game for 'freaks'?

As injury-ravaged Wales prepare for South Africa showdown, claims that the physicality of modern rugby has gone too far

By Gavin Mortimer

As Wales prepare to face South Africa tomorrow in the first of the Rugby World Cup's quarter-finals, a leading doctor has warned the current injury rate is unsustainable and accused the sport of being "a game of freaks".

Professor John Fairclough, University Hospital of Wales honorary consultant and a former member of the medical advisory committee of the Welsh Rugby Union, spoke out as Wales prepared for Saturday's crucial game at Twickenham with a backline devastated by injuries. Coach Warren Gatland has lost seven key backs to injury - Leigh Halfpenny (knee), Rhys Webb (foot), Jonathan Davies (knee), Scott Williams (knee), Liam Williams (foot), Corey Allen (hamstring), and Hallam Amos (shoulder) - and as a result South Africa are strong favourites.

Wales are the most severely affected by injury, but they aren't alone and it was reported by one French newspaper earlier in the week that during the World Cup group stage a player left the field with an injury every 51 minutes. Many of those have been serious, and have ended the World Cup dreams of leading players such as Ireland's Paul O'Connell, South Africa captain Jean De Villiers and France wing Yoann Huget.

In an interview with the BBC, Professor Fairclough, warned: “Although we've got bigger, we've got tougher, we've got stronger, the muscles and ligaments and nerves have not changed in their ability to withstand injury."

As a consequence a sport that once prided itself on being for players of all shapes and sizes is now only played by physical monsters. “I feel the game has become a game of freaks," said Fairclough. "Club rugby in Wales... was a game for everyone, now it's just a game where you have to be strong, fit and fast."

With backs now the same height and weight as forwards of a generation ago, skill has diminished at the same time power has increased. "The sidestep has almost become an irrelevance because you're running at and through people," said Fairclough. "Shoulder pads mean the body is being used as a weapon... to disable somebody else's body."

Professor Fairclough isn't the only medical expert with links to rugby to voice his concerns at the way the sport has moved away from finesse to brute force. “I strongly believe that we do need to look at the laws of the game and the way that it's played," said Dr James Robson, the chief medical officer of the Scottish Rugby Union and doctor to the British and Irish Lions.

In the meantime Wales' patched up squad means that 20-year-old Tyler Morgan will win just his third cap against the Springboks, starting in the centre alongside veteran Jamie Roberts. Other changes from the XV that started in last week's defeat to Australia include the return of Gethin Jenkins for Paul James at loose-head prop and Dan Lydiate replacing Justin Tipuric in the back row.

And the game will be a special occasion for lock Alun Wyn Jones, who wins his 100th Test cap (93 for Wales and six for the British and Irish Lions) and whose physical presence will be crucial against the formidable South African scrum. "The physicality and intensity of the matches so far will stand us in good stead for what is going to be a huge battle against the Springboks," admitted Gatland. "They have grown game on game in this tournament and we know the challenge that faces us from a talented South African side."

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