Duane Heath

Ashwin's trip to rugby hell

2004-06-04 07:15

Cape Town - Watching poor Ashwin Willemse's Springbok season end in agony on Wednesday reminded me of something the great Welsh scrumhalf Gareth Edwards said recently.

Edwards described perfectly the spectre of injury that hovers over every rugby player, no matter whether he (or she) plays at school, club, provincial or international level.

The former Wales and British Lions scrumhalf wrote in his aptly-titled book Tackling Rugby that he recalled the chance of being hurt "was never more than just a fraction away all the time".

"There isn't any doubt whatsoever in my mind," he warned, "that the way the game is being played now will take an enormous toll on the health of players in their later lives. We are breeding a future elderly generation that is going to be half-crippled by the time they reach fifty.

"Some of the tackles that you see today make you wince from your armchair. But at what cost for the future? Because it is only years after you have retired that suddenly it comes back to haunt you."

Edwards' words reminded me of a conversation I once had with a photographer for a small-town newspaper I used to work for.

Hunched over his walking stick

We were driving to some of other assignment when he stopped the car and pointed to a tall old man crossing the road, hunched over his walking stick.

You could tell that, once upon a time, the guy was fit and strong. But all that remained of the power of youth was a sad shell. He looked about 75. I later found out he wasn't yet 60.

"See that guy there," Jo said to me, "that's the reason you should just stop playing rugby right now, my friend. Thirty years ago, that old man used to be the biggest hero in this town. Captain of the first team. Everyone loved him. The girls used to run after him. His photo was in the paper every week. And look at him now. Today, he's just an old cripple whom nobody remembers."

But of course I didn't take Jo's advice about retiring. How could I? There I was, at the bulletproof age of 21, in my first season of senior rugby, already in the 1st XV. Indestructible.

A decade later, I'm still playing, but at what cost to my future? Will I live to regret all the bumps and bruises, as Gareth Edwards warned, or have I got away with my body still reasonably intact?

Considering the amount of time I've spent playing such a physical sport, my list of "serious" injuries is relatively short: a fractured hand (ala Percy); a head wound requiring 25 stitches; a nose that's been knocked out of joint twice; concussion (twice I think, but the memory's a bit fuzzy); and three broken ribs (thankfully all in one incident).

I count myself lucky, because each morning I wake up and my knees still work. I can still run, play golf, climb Table Mountain, get up on my surfboard. But is this good health guaranteed to continue in twenty years' time? Or are rugby injuries like a time bomb?

Edwards provides a chilling answer. "I retired having suffered no serious injuries whatsoever in a career of about eighteen years. I never damaged any ligaments, still today have my original cartilages, I never broke anything and hardly had even a stitch put in me. Yet, despite all that, there have been times since I turned fifty, when I have hardly been able to get out of bed in the mornings."

Now, I didn't play quite as many Tests for Wales as Gareth Edwards, and he might've gone on one or two more Lions tours in his career than I have, so perhaps my body will hold out.

But can the same be said of today's generation of professionals, who are expected to lay their bodies on the line, week in, week out?

Years from now, will the likes of Ashwin Willemse, Butch James and Joe van Niekerk be able to get out of bed on a sunny morning?

And what about that ultimate warrior, Corne Krige?

Just how will these men feel on their 50th birthdays? Will the pain that shoots through those reconstructed knees and patched up shoulders be worth the adoration of yesteryear? Is fleeting fame worth the price of a broken body that can't move off the chair when the grandchildren come visiting?

Do you agree? Tell Duane what you think.

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