What Are We Used To?
The Rugby World Cup is a weird thing, even now, 36 years on from the first one.
Coaches are, usually, hired and fired on a four year cycle. Or they move on voluntarily of course, but that isn’t as euphonic. The changes at Australia and England, plus the advance announcements from Italy and New Zealand are unusual, in at least one case unprecedented.
Players too plan their careers around it and we can all think of players that hang on for too long hoping to finish on a high, retiring after a World Cup. Some, few, achieve the dream, win and retire, walking off to their career at the very top.
Of course, every year many nations change their squad before the contest starts and during the actual competition as injuries take their toll. Perhaps the most infamous of these was the injuries to the All Blacks 10’s, resulting in them calling up Donaldson from his fishing holiday to play in the final against France. Opinions differ about whether he was the fourth or fifth choice flyhalf, but he was certainly a long way down the pecking order, yet there he was in the biggest match of the year.
What’s Happening This Year?
On 19th May both Alun Wyn Jones and Justin Tipuric announced their retirement from international rugby. It took everyone by surprise. Some time later it emerged that Gatland and AWJ had been discussing it for a while, that was all planned. The Tipuric announcement came out of the blue and was rather faster than anyone expected. They’re not retiring from all rugby, AWJ is going to be playing in Toulon as a joker next year. This is basically a cover player for absent players, whether due to injury or Rugby World Cup duties, and has salary cap implications as well as other special rules.
On 9th July Stuart Hogg retired from all rugby.
What’s strange is that none of these players have announced that they’re injured. In fact, a week or so later, AWJ ran out for the Barbarians against a World XV.
We have had injuries of course. Kolisi is in a race to get fit. Owens has been sent away from camp because he’s been unable to train. This far out we’re lacking others to add to that list but over The Rugby Championship and the warm up matches we’ll doubtless see more injuries and players ruled out.
What seems to have happened with these three is that they simply can’t achieve the necessary fitness standards for the squad, so they’re retiring at the end of their careers. In Hogg’s case that’s a few months early – he’d already announced he was retiring after the World Cup. In Tipuric’s case, he’d been battling ongoing injuries for some time, so maybe it’s not a surprise. Alun Wyn Jones had been soldiering on despite his age. Many of us, me included, thought he’d hang up his boots after the 2019 Rugby World Cup. Then the 2021 Lions tour. He played limited minutes rather than every game in this year’s Six Nations, so he can still contribute, but is there space in a smaller squad for France for someone you know can’t play in every game?
We’ve become accustomed over the last decade or so to thinking about player welfare. That’s mostly in terms of concussion and CTE but we’re seeing it in other places as well. No one doubts rugby is a game of immense physicality and while I’m sorry to see these three greats bow out just before a World Cup, I’d rather see them go out like that than be carried off the field because they played when they weren’t actually fit enough to face the challenges of such an intense competition.