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'The pay-outs could be so bad that it would re-model the game to a point it is almost unrecognisable'

Brendan Fanning is this week’s guest on Behind the Lines.

Image: PA

Updated Tue 12:01 PM

THIS WEEK’S GUEST on Behind the Lines is Sunday Independent rugby correspondent Brendan Fanning. 

Among Brendan’s recommended books was The Rugby War by Peter FitzSimons, which chronicles the battle for control of the sport as it moved from amateurism to professionalism. 

  • Brendan Fanning is the latest guest on our sportswriting podcast, Behind the Lines. To get access to the full interview along with the 86-episode series archive, subscribe at members.the42.ie. And for a limited time, you can get €5 off an annual membership by using the promo code BTL. 

That move to professionalism certainly hasn’t settled the sport’s future for once and for all, with the financial impact of the pandemic exacerbating a sport already in flux. 

The upheaval has largely manifested itself in a constellation of new competitions, rules, formats, television deals and private equity investment, but the greater issue is coming down the road. 

Where is the sport going, exactly? 

“My only worry about rugby is it retains a sufficiently high profile for another few years, to keep me in a job! I stopped worrying about where it was going some time ago”, said Brendan when asked that question on Behind the Lines

“What is inescapable is that it is a very dangerous game to play, it’s literally a brutal contact sport. And it is very difficult to recruit people to play that sport if the mothers who make the decisions, ask whether they want their kids to play this game. 

“GAA is physical but it is not in the same ball-park as rugby. There are not as many things that can go wrong on a GAA pitch. Or football, by comparison, is a handy enough game. 

“Rugby is a dangerous sport, there are lots of ways in rugby to become badly hurt. As people become bigger, fitter, and stronger, more people are going to say, ‘I really don’t need this.’ 

“One of the first things I would say, when I was coaching the U20s with Clontarf, at the start of the season, I told them that if they didn’t have private health insurance, they had no business playing rugby. It is absolutely insane. You will dislocate a shoulder or break and arm and do something that will require surgery. If you don’t have health insurance, you are going to pay for it.” 

And is rugby now a sport wrestling with an existential crisis? 

“Yes”, replied Brendan.

“For two reasons. First, because of Covid, though we are probably coming out the far side of that and there is an appetite now to wade back into it. The other thing is, every press release that comes out of World Rugby opens with a line about player welfare being our first and foremost concern.

“There is a well-established paper trail now, and every time I look at it, I think, when the court cases pile up, as they are beginning to pile up, this is World Rugby saying, ‘We haven’t fallen asleep at the wheel. We have been telling people for years, ‘This is what you need to do, we have been modifying the game at every point that we can to make it safer, we have been making people aware of the dangers of playing.’ 

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“But ultimately the financial pay-outs could be so bad that it would re-model the game, and re-model it to a point it is almost unrecognisable. A fundamental attraction of the game of rugby is physical contact, and dominating other people physically. The laws of the game encourage it and allow it. If you get to a point we can’t continue to have the tackle the way we have the tackle, or we can’t continue to have a breakdown the way we have a breakdown, we need to fundamentally alter the laws of the game and effectively emasculate it. 

“It stops becoming rugby and starts becoming something else, and a lot of people will say, ‘It’s not for me anymore.’”

To listen to the full podcast with Brendan Fanning, subscribe at members.the42.ie. 

Brendan has collaborated with Willie Anderson on his autobiography, Crossing the Line. It is published by Reach Sport and is available now. 

 - First published today at 07.00

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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