As I See It

To open 2015, I’d like to welcome my Dad, Terry O’Neill to the The World writing team. Dad’s been covering regional sport in New Zealand in print and radio for as long as I can remember and his As I See It commentary delivers insights into contemporary sports issues…

We had planned to launch this at the end of the year but a major computer meltdown on my part delayed proceedings until I could rebuild and recover everything…


Springboks vs All Blacks, 1956 (c)

The picture is of my choosing as I always like to lead a post with a picture, all the rest is Dads…

By Terry O’Neill

The 1956 Springboks New Zealand tour, concussion, the rapid development of gymnasiums, and Irishmen Brian O’Driscoll and his uncle Barry O’Driscoll, appear to have little in common.

That tour was the first by South African since 1937, and prior to it All Black selectors stated that back trialists, midfield in particular, must weigh at least twelve stone, an indication of the approaching tour’s intensity. Since then, players have pursued improved performance through intense physical development. Increased muscular bulk multiplied by greater pace, and changes in defensive techniques may be spectacular entertainment but raise serious concerns about head injuries. Significantly last season’s English Under 18 team were, player for player, heavier than those of the 1991 World Cup English side.

That Irish prince of centres, Brian O’Driscoll, the most capped test player with 141, believes the All Blacks will win the next World Cup because of their higher skill factor. “I don’t think the gym monkey thing applies to them as much as it does over here. They have farmer strength. The Polynesians guys are pretty strong without going to a gym. They focus way more from an early age on skills. They do everything with a ball. They have balance. They have that physicality, but they are able to mix their game up.”

Barry O’Driscoll, former early 1970s Irish fullback and a medical doctor, served the IRB medical committee 15 years but resigned in protest at the trial of their new head injury protocol. Previous policy stated that any player suspected of suffering concussion had to leave the field and not play for a week (incidentally reduced from three weeks in earlier policy). New IRB guidelines state a player can return to the field five minutes after an injury providing a medical inspection has cleared him of concussion.

The game has changed admits Barry O’Driscoll. “Rugby’s now a big community sport. So what’s important is to get the spectators in? The TV in? They love big hits.”

Current players’ size and weight is accentuated by the tackling technique change from “around the legs” to the defensive side’s emphasis on the all-encompassing upper body tackle. This attempts to jolt the ball loose, or to try and smother it and force a turnover, leading to more head clashes.

Brian O’Driscoll said he’s not a fan of gymnasiums. “In Ireland there is a huge focus on the weights room, as opposed to whether a player can throw a 10m pass on the run. They should be rugby players becoming athletes, not athletes becoming rugby players.”

Statistically 50 percent of injuries occur in tackles. Under 18 schoolboys have half the injuries of those in professional ranks, and hookers and flankers are most susceptible.

Does the IRB care about players’ wellbeing? Or do these practices attract more dosh from TV moguls?
But change is on the way. In the Saracens/ London Irish rugby game played a fortnight ago the Saracen players wore a device behind the ear referred to as the X patch which measures the size and direction of hits to the head. The X patch is currently being used in American football as well.
Tradition is a terrible reason to give people avoidable brain damage.” – Chris Nowinski, co-dir. for study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, Boston University School of Medicine, former Harvard Ivy Football player.



First published in The North Otago Times 10 January 2015.

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