October 8, 2022
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MICHAEL WOLSEY: Warning – this sport can seriously damage your health

The late Jack Kyle is regarded by many as the finest athlete ever to play rugby for Ireland. An amazing solo try he scored against France in 1953 inspired the correspondent of The Irish Times to poetry:

They seek him here,
They seek him there,
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.
That paragon of craft and guile,
That damned elusive Jackie Kyle

I had the pleasure of meeting the great out-half when he was inducted  into rugby’s Hall of Fame in 2008. He was a lovely, modest man, with a fund of interesting stories about his rugby days and his career as a surgeon in Ireland and Africa.

He reflected on how the sport had changed and he paid tribute to great modern players. He would not, he thought,  have wished to compete in the professional game.

He was shocked to discover that players from opposing teams no longer enjoy a dinner together on the evening after an international match. The camaraderie of this event – where the referee was guest of honour and ceremonially toasted – was almost as important to Kyle as the game itself.

Dr Kyle also had concerns about the health risks involved in playing such a physical sport at professional level. We were only chatting and he didn’t press the point. “I have doubts about it,” he said, or word to that effect.

His doubts have been brought back to me by the news that former England international Steve Thompson is suffering from dementia at the age of 42. He blames rugby and, along with six other former professionals, is suing the sport’s governing bodies for failing in their duty of care.

Steve Thompson’s rugby world was vastly different from the amateur game enjoyed by Jack Kyle.

Kyle played for Queen’s University and a club called North of Ireland. He didn’t play every week because there was no league to organise regular fixtures. All club games were what would now be classed as ‘friendlies’.

For Irish players, the only really competitive games were three inter-provincials each year and four internationals against the other Five Nations teams. There would be visits from southern hemisphere sides and Kyle might go touring with Ireland or the Lions. But, tours apart, he would have played no rugby in the off season.

And the game was less physical. I am looking now at old black and white pictures of Kyle. He was extremely fit but his build was quite sleight. Reports describe him as ‘wiry’ and ‘trim’. The same could be said of Kyle’s team-mates. There were no giants. It was a hard game but there were few bone-crunching tackles and scrums were not the menacing mastodons they have become.

A modern player meets more aggression in a day’s training than Kyle would have faced in a year. Not that Kyle often did a day’s training. Like the rest of the squad he was a full-time student or had a day job.

Rugby, played as Kyle knew it, was a safe sport. I don’t think the same can be said of the modern game. There are limits to the amount of punishment a human body can absorb without long term consequences and, when I look at a young man like Johnny Sexton, limping from the field week after week, I feel that modern rugby is pushing its players beyond those limits.

Some sports were always and obviously dangerous – professional boxing being the one that leaps to mind. But others have only become dangerous since they turned professional.

Tennis, even at its highest level, was an amateur sport until the relatively recent 1970s. There were fewer tournaments and the play was less intense. Competing at the top on a never-ending circuit has left some players burnt out by their early twenties and others with injuries that will haunt them for the rest of their lives.

Gymnasts suffer for their sport and so do some swimmers, their problems made worse by the fact that they start so young.  Professionalism is also taking its toll on runners, jumpers and all types of competitors on track and field.

Like rugby,  these sports were intended for recreation. They could be tough workouts that required high levels of stamina and fitness, and, like most things in life, they had risks – but they were not hazardous in the long term. Turning them from recreations to occupations has made them dangerous.

Should rugby balls and tennis rackets now carry a warning? Caution: these sports can seriously damage your health.

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