At the elite level, rugby became much more visible to the general population through the media, especially television. Its brutality could be both minutely inspected and, if outside the rules, negatively sanctioned. At Japan 2019, all television viewers can watch and hear descriptions of every crunch of bone on muscle.
The 21st century ushered in, apart from high-definition television, late-modern notions of risk and new versions of masculinity. Parents became less compliant about accepting the dangers of a sport that, in a small number of catastrophic cases, could result in paraplegia and other serious injury. The largely unexamined notion that boys and men should suffer in macho silence and ‘play hurt’ was also being questioned.
A game that once was open to a range of bodily types narrowed in its physical range in favour of size. Backs, historically teased as prima donnas by forwards, are increasingly as big as forwards in earlier periods, while forwards have become even larger.
The physical and psychological toll on players, especially those whose primary employer is a club but who are expected to represent their country in the Six Nations, Super Rugby and the World Cup, has increased along with the speed of the game. The increasing use of mouth and head guards has done little to assuage anxieties that this game may have become too dangerous.
Concerns about traumatic and degenerative brain injury, in particular, have led to increased vigilance about injuries to the head, leading to some complaints that tough spontaneity is being lost and caution encouraged.
All this has been taking place during a boom in women’s rugby, which is one of the fastest growing sports in the world. The sport once monopolised by men and symbolising their masculinity now has many grassroots and elite female practitioners for whom, as their game professionalises, the same risks are manifest.
Adjustments to the game at junior level, and the global development of the less physically perilous Sevens game, have to some degree addressed these issues. Still, there are louder demands that, for example, tackling should be banned among school-age players.
But, in the global spectacle of the 15-player game at the men’s Rugby World Cup in Japan, the attritional combat of rugby union is at its most advanced and watched. Each further limitation on how contact should be performed leads necessarily to more infractions, send offs, suspensions and, inevitably, controversies.
The outcome is more complaint from the old school that the game is being emasculated, and greater demands for restrictions from those who want to lessen the risk of harm. The game that proclaims that it is “played in Heaven” now often finds itself in Purgatory, trapped between the thrill and dread of its sporting spectacle that it has created.
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