Players paying too high a price, says union head
MONTPELLIER – Professional rugby is taking such a terrible physical and mental toll on the players, shortening careers and leaving a lifelong legacy of disability, that the soul of the sport is under threat, the head of the French players’ union has warned.
Player welfare has again been under scrutiny after it was revealed that former All Black Dan Carter played the French Top 14 final for Racing Metro after receiving an injection of corticoids – a legal steroid used to treat inflammation.
Carter said he had the injections after suffering a knee issue in the semi-final. He was cleared of any wrongdoing by the French federation but Montpellier lock Robins Tchale Watchou, the president of the French players’ union, believes it set a bad example.
“If today, taking corticoids, albeit legally, triggers so many questions, it means there is a problem. Refusing to talk about it would be a massive strategic mistake. Do we need it? Can we continue like this?,” Tchale Watchou told Reuters at his home in Montpellier.
“He took something legally but is it necessary? That’s where the debate lies.”
The Carter case is an illustration of the wider problem in top-level rugby, where players are doing all they can to piece their battered bodies together week after week.
“Rugby used to prepare men, it now makes machines,” Tchale Watchou said. “Players are being used like scrap. The human side of the sport was key, it was at the centre of everything. If we lose that, what’s the point?”
Cameroon’s Tchale Watchou, 33, has been trying to alert the younger players to the dangers of pushing their body too hard.
“What I tell the youngsters: ‘I am almost sure that you won’t be able to play as long as me. I am almost sure that I will be a broken old man but for you it will be worse. By 30 you’ll have gone under the knife three or four times. What state will you be in?
“We’ve seen some kids smashing it until they make it to the national team and then disappear suddenly. Take Racing Metro’s Teddy Thomas, he’s so gifted, but he’s always injured and we have not seen him for two years.
“He’ll end up being injured for seven years of a 10-year career. The sport has become prejudicial to health.”
That damage to their prize assets could also be harmful to the clubs in the long term, according to Tchale Watchou.
“If some players end up taking their employers to court because they failed to protect their health, the clubs will sink,” he said.
But he said the clubs are not the only ones responsible for protecting the players — the doctors, the authorities and the players themselves need to work together to improve the situation.
“We (as a sport) will be responsible for and guilty of having not done enough, having failed to be brave enough to do what’s needed,” he said.
“The doctor is in an uncomfortable zone. He is responsible for the player’s health but he also has that pressure of making sure his diagnosis does not impact the performance.
“The doctor is under pressure every day, with also an athlete who wants to play at all cost. Our mission is to give the doctor the most independent role… they should be paid by the league or the federation.”
As a lock in the French league Tchale Watchou is not someone who shirks physical contact but even the hardest men are concerned about the long-term impact of what they put their bodies through day after day.
“It’s a concern we all share,” he said. “Players are wondering if they’ll be able to go on a bike ride with their kids in four or five years.
“My generation, everyday when we wake up, we experience physical decrepitude.”
Yet it is not just the obvious symptoms, or even concussion, which is being taken far more seriously by the game’s authorities, but the hidden mental impact that worries the head of the players’ union.
“We deal with dramatic situations, but with discretion,” he said. “We’re taking care of a guy who tried to kill himself two weeks ago. We’re not talking openly about this but this, too, is happening behind the scenes.”
Although welfare is a worldwide problem Tchale Watchou said that British clubs are “way ahead in terms of protecting players, and England’s much-travelled coach Eddie Jones agrees.
“The game’s getting more physical. The players are getting bigger, stronger and faster and the pitch size doesn’t change so there’s always that (welfare) concern,” Jones said on Wednesday having had to overlook 10 injured first-choice players for his autumn internationals squad.
“How you manage the number of games is a difficult situation because the players want to get paid, don’t they? They prefer to play more games. It’s a difficult situation… it’s about financial reward against personal risk. “But I think that World Rugby are very good at looking after player welfare. I think what they’ve done and what the English clubs have done in terms of concussion is world class. “The care they’re showing to players can’t be doubted.” -Reuters