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Latest horror injury at the breakdown a timely reminder for World Rugby

The Highlanders’ James Lentjes suffered a nasty ankle fracture and dislocation last weekend.

HIGHLANDERS FLANKER JAMES Lentjes doesn’t bear any ill will towards the Melbourne Rebels after he sustained a horrific fracture and dislocation of his left ankle at the breakdown during the sides’ Super Rugby clash last weekend.

Lentjes joked that he’s “doing a bit better now my ankle doesn’t look like a question mark” in a post on Instagram, while applauding the Rebels for a “hell of a clean!” 

Footage of the ankle injury is embedded further down this article but think twice before watching, as it’s a truly nasty one.

james-lentjes-departs-the-field-with-a-suspected-broken-leg Lentjes was left in agony by the huge injury. Photosport / Joe Allison/INPHO Photosport / Joe Allison/INPHO / Joe Allison/INPHO

In the 30th minute of the contest, Lentjes makes a tackle on the Rebels’ Billy Meakes as the centre darts on a half-break.

Lentjes looks to immediately bounce back up onto his feet to jackal for a clean turnover but two Rebels forwards arrive in at high speed to smash him clear. 

Unfortunately for Lentjes, his left ankle folds into the ground as he is hit by the Rebels players, the entire weight of the trio momentarily coming down onto Lentjes’ joint, causing the instant dislocation and fracture, and leaving his foot pointing off to the left at a stomach-churning ankle.

Lentjes’ screams of pain are instantaneous and as he writhes around on the floor in agony, players from both teams signal for play to stop, with referee Paul Williams frantically blowing his whistle and signalling for medical assistance to get to Lentjes.

Six minutes later, after Lentjes has received treatment and used a ‘green whistle’ to take on board the pain-killing medication methoxyflurane, he is carted off the pitch, receiving a standing ovation and lots of pats on the shoulder from both sets of players.

Unsurprisingly, his season is over after surgery and he faces extensive rehab in order to hopefully make a full recovery.

While many people, seemingly Lentjes included, will argue that the cleanout by the Rebels was legal and fair, and that his injury was simply an unfortunate accident, this incident was a timely reminder for World Rugby of the danger posed to jackals at the breakdown.

Tweet by @Ben Ryan Ben Ryan / Twitter Ben Ryan / Twitter / Twitter

Others will feel strongly that the two Rebels players clearing Lentjes out were intentionally going off their feet, which is against the laws of the game but clearly not always adjudicated as such.

Sam Warburton and Sean O’Brien are among those to have called for greater protection for jackals in the recent past, while horror injuries to Leinster’s Dan Leavy and Ireland U20s flanker Ciaran Booth have been reminders to Irish rugby viewers of the danger of competing at the breakdown.

While hastily-arranged Six Nations meetings in Paris today regarding the coronavirus have hogged headlines, World Rugby is also meeting in the French capital for its second annual player welfare and law symposium, where the game’s governing body is bringing together a ‘breakdown working group’ for the first time.

All Blacks boss Ian Foster and ex-Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt are both set to be part of the meeting, as are some of the game’s leading referees, analysts, and medical experts.

The breakdown working group’s job, according to World Rugby, is “to consider playing and injury trends and potential law trials” in this area of the game.

World Rugby’s data suggests that the breakdown is “accountable for approximately 9% of match injuries, but with a higher-than-average severity in the elite game.”

Many supporters will dismiss the need for any potential law trials at the breakdown and insist that the game’s current laws simply need to be adhered to more strictly. There is real merit in this argument.

dan-leavy-receives-treatment Dan Leavy suffered a major knee injury at the breakdown last year. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Side entries at the breakdown are a blight on the game currently – as Ireland U20s flanker Booth knows only too well – while attacking players flying in off their feet for ‘torpedo’ or ‘missile’ clearouts are a frequent sight too. ‘Croc rolls,’ whereby the rucking player rolls the jackal sideways onto the ground, are seen as very dangerous by some fans and coaches. 

The issue, in large part, is that sometimes illegal clearing out is the only solution to removing a jackal who is threatening steal possession, often because that same jackal has got into a strong position illegally. 

Very often, we see jackals rewarded with penalties even though their hands are initially on the ground in front of the ball, holding the competing player up until they can get into a stronger position.

Players and coaches have a responsibility in this. They’re the ones who actively train and plan to push the laws to the limit and break them at times around the breakdown and other areas.

Referees have a thankless task in attempting to see everything that’s going on at extreme speed in the pressurised environment of Test rugby, while also having a responsibility to ensure that the game flows and is a spectacle for the paying supporters.

Some of the leading referees will tell you that they simply can’t penalise every single illegal thing in a game because it would ruin the contest. They focus on getting the ‘big things’ right, but players are only too willing to take advantage.

So cleaning up the breakdown is certainly about current laws being adhered to more stringently.

But it will also be fascinating to hear if this first-ever World Rugby breakdown working group comes up with anything innovate that might change this area of the game and make it safer.

irelands-head-coach-joe-schmidt-during-the-training Joe Schmidt is due to be part of the breakdown working group.

The 50:22 kicking law is currently in trial phase and it seems very likely that we will see more of it at higher levels of rugby in the coming seasons, with the idea being to reduce the numbers of players in the frontline defence.

Under the 50:22 law, if a team kicks the ball from inside their own half – either during play or from a free-kick – and it bounces infield before rolling into touch inside the opposition’s 22, the kicking team receives an attacking lineout.

A fine example of this would be Anthony Bouthier’s stunning spiral kick for France in their Six Nations opener against England. Under the 50:22 law, that would have resulted in a France lineout metres from the England tryline.

With most teams now operating with 13 or 14 players in their frontline, that leaves plenty of bodies to contest breakdowns too. Perhaps the 50:22 will make the breakdown less ferocious, or perhaps it will make it even more so. That remains to be seen.

Whatever comes of World Rugby’s breakdown working group meeting tomorrow, the hope is that we see fewer and fewer injuries at the breakdown in the coming years.

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