How many head-on car crashes at 60km/h can one player take?
What Pat Lambie has shown is that he was well informed and wise when it came to his own health
Any time injury cuts a player’s career short in any sport, it is a sad moment. But in rugby that moment is one bad tackle, one stroke of rotten luck, or one poor decision away.
It’s a surprise more players don’t have their careers cut short more frequently than they do. And the fact that most top professionals enjoy decade-long careers in a sport where a player displays similar symptoms to a person in a head-on car crash at 60km/h (according to a prominent physio), it’s a miracle.
Players are brilliantly conditioned and well-monitored in terms of their workloads. The symptoms of discomfort or fatigue they show allows medical staff and coaches to adjust their training schedules and game time accordingly.
At Stellenbosch University, from under-19 level upwards, players wear GPS trackers and have to report a strict self-assessment every day so that their physiology can be tracked. How did you sleep, what did you eat, how much did you drink and what general health conditions are you displaying? Such questions are asked and answered daily.
If a player is in the university’s rugby programme, he has to share that information. From the data the university is drawing up one of the most comprehensive mass rugby player studies in medical history. And they’ve been at it for years, meaning the database is already extensive.
That knowledge is first going to be used to their own benefit and the benefit of their teams and players. But it’s also data that will ultimately be shared in the medical community for the improvement of rugby players’ health globally.
World Rugby has been pushing player safety for years and even though they don’t always get it right, the sport’s governing body can’t be accused of doing nothing to enhance player safety. SA Rugby, the Rugby Football Union and many other rugby and medical organisations have also implemented programmes, made studies and introduced changes to help make players safer.
But rugby is never going to be completely safe and it will never eradicate the chances of career-ending or crippling injuries or, in rare cases, death. When two world-class athletes weighing 110kg each collide at full speed, the chance of injury is high. Only tackling and bracing technique and strength and conditioning stop every collision from being catastrophic.
At the core, playing rugby means making an individual choice to accept the associated risks. There is inherent physical danger in participating in a sport where upwards of 300 collisions take place per match. And that’s not even calculating injuries that occur from non-contact, such as pulled muscles or twisted ankles.
Former Bok flyhalf Pat Lambie’s decision to retire based on a traumatic past few years when he has battled dizziness, nausea and trembling associated with a series of concussions, is unfortunate but part of the landscape. What Lambie has shown is that he was well informed and wise when it came to his own health. Most importantly though, he was never forced to play when unwell. That, if nothing else, shows that rugby is getting it right.
In another era, with less medical data and perhaps fewer consequences for endangering a player’s life, Lambie might have felt pressurised to play when he was not fit. Clearly his current club Racing 92, and the Sharks and Springboks before them, put his health first.
Rugby will never be risk free if it remains a contact sport, and every player knows this. Mountaineers know that death and maiming are part of the equation, as do racing drivers, boxers and Alpine skiers. So saying goodbye to Lambie in the prime of his career is sad. But at least he gets to walk away from the sport with the support of his club and the sympathy of fans rather and anger and resentment for being soft, as might have been the case a decade ago.
Rugby is doing all it can to protect players, but perhaps its biggest achievement is allowing players dignity and support when they have to leave the sport because of the toll it has taken. It’s a sign of a mature professional sport.