The quiet farewell to rugby of Bill Young
last Thursday should have rung a warning bell somewhere in the rugby hierarchy.
Instead, another prop is making all the news – the promise of and pressure on
young Rodney Blake trying to anchor the Wallaby scrum this Saturday against the
world’s best is dominating pre-match coverage.

It seems to have gone unnoticed that none
of the three run-on front rowers from Australia’s last significant rugby
victory – the 2003 World Cup semi-final – is playing now because of neck
problems.

Ben Darwin was
stretchered off during the semi-final after a scrum collapse that could have
been catastrophic. The ARU’s euphemistic reason for Bill Young’s
retirement was because he “finally succumbed to the wear and tear of a long
career at the top level”. That means his neck isn’t
quite right and the doctors have told him he can’t risk packing down any more.
Hooker Brendan Cannon is still part of the game, the old war-horse setting his
battered body for another Super 14 season, but he’s presently unavailable
through injury.

They were the
crack Australian front row just years ago – and now they’re just cracked.

After a string of
catastrophic junior rugby injuries in the 1980s, scrum laws were changed for
Under 19 rugby and players stopped breaking their necks in scrums. It still
happens in senior rugby though, along with the injuries that build up for the
likes of Young and Cannon. If the minor rule changes made sense for Under 19
scrums, a reasonable soul might conclude they also would make sense for open
scrums.

Instead of moving
in that direction, international rugby is going through a phase of emphasising
its power and destructive force. The present rules encourage the wheeling and
smashing of the scrum, with all the power possible from 16 athletic giants
being transmitted and twisted through the necks and shoulders of the front
rows.

The fascination
with titanic scrummaging battle on Saturday night borders on blood sport. Adopt
the Under 19 rules in the open game. Ban the crotch bind, limit and don’t
reward the wheel. It would still be a great contest. The vast majority of spectators
wouldn’t notice any difference except for scrums being a bit quicker and
cleaner. Rodzilla would remain a champion. But he would be less likely to end
up with a broken neck.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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