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New book discloses the alarming crisis facing Rugby Union

Saving Rugby Union is a book many no doubt would prefer to ignore, arguing it is damaging the image of a sport that has increased significantly in popularity. But the reverse is true.

In March 2016, an open letter signed by 70 academics, doctors and public health professionals argued that rugby union was too dangerous in its existing form to be played in schools. In 2020, 25 years after the game turned professional, rugby players are suffering serious injuries at an alarming rate which has led to a debate on the dangers of concussion as well as the huge casualty list of leading players unable to play in major tournaments. The calls for change made by journalists, famous former internationals, coaches, medical experts, as well as some current players, have all been ignored.

In a new book called Saving Rugby Union Ross Reyburn gives a damning and forensic account of the way that rugby union has been mismanaged in the professional era. He outlines how a highly physical game has been turned into a dangerous sport by misguidedly trying to match the flow of its great rival, rugby league, and allowing commercialism to dominate the game. The arguments featured are of great interest to rugby fans from both hemispheres.

In his compelling foreword, ‘Why have they changed our game?’ rugby legend Willie John McBride , says:

“There is an injuries crisis in rugby. You look at every international game that is played. How many do you see that are injury-free?... It is terrible seeing all these people running off and on the pitch at an international. Recently a player was brought on with a minute to go – it could make no difference to the result.”

Author Ross Reyburn agrees, saying:

“I wrote this book as I feel that the increased popularity of rugby union as a spectator sport has thrown a smokescreen over the crisis the sport is facing with a worrying drop in male playing numbers. Why have the game’s decision makers ignored the many calls to reverse the changes that have caused so much damage to the sport? The harsh reality is, and no newspaper is prepared to print this, is that unlike in the past, the rugby league of today is a minor sport and in no way rivals rugby union in terms of popularity or commercial appeal.”

Saving Rugby Union by Ross Reyburn also includes a chapter where consultant orthopaedic surgeon Professor John Fairclough highlights ‘the human body is not meant to take that amount of force.’ Professor Fairclough says:

“It is really odd to think in the 1980s there was virtually no medical cover at rugby matches. The injury numbers started to become serious in the late 1990s because of the changes to the rules and the advent of professionalism. People started to become bigger, they started to become fitter.”

Saving Rugby Union is not an unbalanced condemnation of modern rugby or a call to turn back the clock. The book recounts the history of rugby union’s early decades as a professional sport and praises the best features of the modern game, especially the expansion of women’s rugby and the virtues of the 13-man code. It also provides a template for solving the sport’s injury crisis.

“Rugby union is far too complex a sport ever to match the appeal of soccer – in either spectator or commercial terms,” says Ross. “But a Golden Era for the sport beckons when the Covid-19 crisis ends if the obvious reforms that will make the game safer, more attractive and a less complex and less costly sport are finally adopted.”

This book will not be welcomed by the rugby establishment. But for those rugby writers and former internationals who have pinpointed the modern game’s alarming deficiencies, it could provide a bible for change returning rugby union to its heritage as a 15-player sport and its amateur era ethos as “a sport for all sizes”.