"It was a sport for all shapes and sizes, then it became a sport for freaks. There is an inevitability that serious injuries will continue to rise. The human body is not supposed to take that amount of force."

Leading orthopaedic surgeon Professor John Fairclough,
interviewed by The Rugby Paper 25 November 2013.

“If it’s all going to be about size, then rugby union will die. The players now are much bigger, less skilful and it’s all about power now. Before any game the players are warming up for an hour and a half, that is totally ridiculous. It’s all because of these fitness coaches who feel they need to justify their jobs.”

Welsh full-back JPR Williams, an orthopaedic surgeon, 29 November 2013.

“The sight of superhuman hulks making bone-jarring hits on each other may actually make the game seem more remote than ever. ‘Go out and get flattened’ is not a selling point to fretting mothers.”

Matt Dickinson, The Times chief sports writer, writing on the eve of the 2015 World Cup.

“Do we go back to injury replacements only? Do players need to become more fatigued and not as big and powerful as they are now?”

Warren Gatland, February 2016.

“It is definitely a game of how big can we get players. The main theme is violence at the breakdown for certain directors of rugby. There are coaches who openly talk about the G-force on the hits. I don’t know the way forward, I just know that I’m worried, and have been for ages.”

Rugby agent and former Scotland winger Shaun Longstaff in a BBC Scotland interview, 31 August 2016.

“For the last four years they have experimented with a return to play protocol for a player who has shown signs and symptoms of concussion and this protocol is not fit for purpose.”

Dr Barry O’Driscoll, who resigned from his role as World Rugby medical adviser in 2012, speaking in December 2016.

“The not-straight rot has spread to the lineout. It is another variation on turning the set-piece into a win-your-own-ball restart, rather than a contest for possession. “Elite referees are arguing that they do not want to be responsible for shop-window internationals being ruined by them constantly whistling for set-piece infringements … My belief is that pro-players are good enough, and are paid enough, to be expected to adapt very quickly … if it takes a weekend or two of disruption to drum the message home, the time could not have been spent better.”

Nick Cain in The Rugby Paper, 17 February 2017.

“Whether it’s concussion, or any other injury, the game of rugby is now becoming virtually unplayable … What we now have is people setting out to collide with each other … You can’t go on playing a game where there is a reasonable expectation that a player who steps out that day is going to get a brain injury.”

Consultant neuropathologist Dr Willie Stewart, interviewed by BBC Scotland, 21 April 2017.

“This week, we put out 23 guys against Brive and 17 of them had to report to injury clinic on Sunday and weren’t fit to train on Monday morning.”

Worcester lock forward Donncha O’Callaghan, 18 October 2017.

“When I played, no one tore biceps or hamstrings off the bone. No one had stinger injuries and what is happening is a player’s muscular set-up is not natural, while your ligaments and bone structure remain the same. It is the load that causes the problems. Twenty-two years on from the arrival of professionalism, I think we are probably paying the price.”

Welsh Rugby Union chairman Gareth Davies, the former Wales fly-half, talking to BBC Wales Live Radio on 9 November 2017.

“This year’s Six Nations Championship will be decided through injury. England are without 13 players, Ireland 10, Wales 11, including six first-choice forwards. There is doubt about five of Scotland’s front rowers. France are missing 11 key men. “No club in Britain and Ireland appears unaffected. John Kingston, director of rugby at Harlequins, added up his injured players just before Christmas and counted 23.”

Sunday Times rugby correspondent Stephen Jones, 28 January 2018.

“Much of the guilt for what has happened, the weaponisation of defences, has come from freedom to play it hard and illegal.”

Former England international Stuart Barnes in The Times, 22 October 2018.

“I am not totally sure I want my son to play rugby.” French prop Jefferson Poirot, December 2018. “Right now, New Zealand rugby is bobbing along above the water, but there is a massive hole in the hull and, just like the Titanic, the game here is in danger of sinking. Rugby is categorically not the game of choice for boys aged 13–18. Figures from the last three years show that around 3,000 boys give up rugby between the ages of 10 and 13. Of those still playing at 13, more than half were lost to rugby by the time they were 18. That’s not the worst of it, though. The total number of boys playing rugby every year is dropping.”

New Zealand Herald sports writer Gregor Paul, 1 February 2019.

“My generation of players have been crash dummies for a sport in transition from semi-professionalism. It is being reshaped, subtly but relentlessly, by money men, geo-politicians, talking heads and television executives. They treat us as warm bodies, human widgets. Players cut the ends off their boots so they can play with broken toes. They gobble painkillers like Smarties. After matches dressing rooms are like M*A*S*H clearing houses … People are being put back together with stitches and glue. Senior players have bits falling off them.”

Dylan Hartley in the Guardian, August 2020.

“The breakdown is a pretty ugly place when you’ve got three 18-stoners flying in, trying to take your head off. Sometimes I’m struggling to shampoo my head the next day because my head is hurting so bad.”

Former Wales and British & Irish Lions captain Sam Warburton, November 2014.

“The problem is the power is there the whole game. You have 15 players and you can replace half your team. The ball needs to be in play for longer. The more fatigued players are, the more space there is.”

Eddie Jones, talking after masterminding Japan’s memorable 34–32 World Cup triumph versus South Africa, October 2015.

“When centres and wings are the same weight as amateurera locks, the evolution of professional rugby has reached a dangerous stage. There are no places of refuge from the onslaught. Anything that encourages downsizing is worth weighing up, so to speak. Rugby must remain about confrontation and courage to go with the myriad skills required but if only the biggest beasts can survive in the jungle, the threat of extinction will grow and grow.”

Daily Mail rugby correspondent Chris Foy, 4 March 2016.

“Players used to be more aerobic to last the game. Now you can change over half your team, so players play for shorter periods and it’s more about power. The hits are relentless from the first to the 80th minute: they used to drop off. By reducing the number of subs, it would change the body type of a player.”

Former England coach Andy Robinson in The Times, 17 September 2016.

“The eight-man bench is currently the main reason why teams can afford muscle-bound forwards who cannot last the pace for the full 80 minutes. It’s time to cut the replacements bench back down to size, with a prop who can cover both sides, a hooker, and two more utilities. “Four replacements would help to restore the aerobic and attritional aspects to rugby union, moving the balance back towards movement rather than muscle. That crucial equilibrium should never have been sacrificed to give coaches excuses to select poorly by giving them half a new team in waiting.”

Rugby correspondent Nick Cain in The Rugby Paper, 5 January 2017.

“I had guys like Wesley Fofana and Yoann Maestri who played 120 games over three years and turned into grandfathers on the pitch. They had no proper rest, no preparation and were emotionally wrecked.”

Former France coach Philippe Saint-André, The Rugby Paper, 23 April 2017.

“Every morning I get up, walk down the stairs and I struggle. I’m 34. I had a groin reconstruction, I’ve got tendonitis in both my Achilles. I’ve got three prolapsed discs in my spine. We’ve got a new baby. I can’t actually bend over to pick her up. And this is coming from a winger. I wasn’t a No 8 who had the huge collisions and competed at the ruck.”

Ugo Monye, speaking on BBC Radio 5 Live’s Weekly Podcast on 12 October 2017.

“Sort out the thuggery at clear-out time, start reffing it properly. The clear out doesn’t exist in law and certainly shouldn’t be used as an excuse for players who are not bound to launch themselves off their feet like an Exocet and take out – injure, maim – players who are behind the ball and legally bound on.”

Rugby writer Brendan Gallagher in The Rugby Paper, December 2017.

“Had someone devised a table for the League of Broken Bones, the Dragons would almost certainly have finished last season top of the pile. According to their medical records, a total of 27 players underwent a total of 32 operations during the course of the campaign … by the time they had negotiated the first month of last season, the Dragons had a casualty list that stretched to the equivalent of two complete XVs.”

Veteran rugby correspondent Peter Jackson in The Rugby Paper, 26 August 2018.

“The one thing I’d really want is that everyone gets 16 weeks break between their last game and their next one. It’s a worldwide problem and probably the team that’s managing it best at the moment’s Ireland. They go ‘you can’t play’ because they own the players and the franchises completely.”

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen calls for a 16-week off season, 28 October 2018.

On 9 December 2018, 19-year-old Stade Français back-row forward Nicolas Chauvin was taken unconscious to hospital after his neck was broken in a double tackle playing in a youth match. He died three days later – the third French youngster fatally injured through playing rugby in France in 2018. Widespread calls to make rugby a safer sport followed. “Rugby is not a sport where kids should die on the field. There are clear laws that are not always respected. The game was created by an English college as a sport of eluding opponents. It has become a sport of combat. We see game strategies favouring violent collisions rather than the tactics of evasion. It is important that our rugby becomes a game of movement which limits direct confrontation and charging into each other.”

Retired French neurosurgeon Jean Chazal, sacked by the French Rugby Federation’s medical board for his dramatic warning that death was stalking rugby fields, calls for change, December 2018.

“People are dying on rugby pitches. In the seven months between May and December 2018, there were five deaths recorded during a match or as a direct result of playing rugby. Rugby’s just a game. It’s not worth dying for. And if something isn’t done soon, then a professional player will die during a game in front of TV cameras, and only then will people demand that steps must be taken.”

Sam Warburton in his autobiography, Open Side, September 2019.

“Modern rugby has developed to the point where if it goes down any more avenues it will cease to be rugby and become another game. We are getting very close to American football with all the delays, the TMO, multiple officials, the use of technology, huge numbers of replacements seemingly coming and going at will.”

Writer Michael Green, author of The Art of Coarse Rugby, speaking in December 2014.

“Rugby union has become a cross between rugby league, with all its long-strung lines of players across the pitch intent on bashing into each other, and American football, with its play book of set pieces which everyone has to learn off by heart. Rugby needs to get back to the times when the tackled player had to release the ball as soon as he was held and his knee hit the floor when, as a result, turnovers were commonplace rather than as rare as hen’s teeth.”

Sir Gareth Edwards, February 2016.

“Collision is becoming the legitimate essence of rugby union because the laws are not enforced strictly enough … Collisions threaten the future of the game.”

Former England fly-half Stuart Barnes writing in The Times, 22 February 2016.

“We do so much in the area of prevention, treatment, management, education around player welfare, we believe the sport has never been safer to play.”

World Rugby CEO Brett Gosper speaking to CNN World Sport, November 2016.

“What is the point of a scrum if you have crooked feeds? The laws are clear, but instead we have scrum-halves allowed to put the ball into the second row and hookers who never learn how to hook because they do not have to. The reality is that this is a joke which elite referees have allowed.”

Jeremy Guscott, in his Rugby Paper column, 8 January 2017.

“Romain Poite made the headlines with his cracking one-liner, ‘I’m a referee. Not a coach’ but the plain fact is our referees are doing far too much coaching and not enough refereeing. You see it in virtually every match: a player edges offside at a ruck and the ref warns him to go back.”

Colin Boag, in his column in The Rugby Paper, 12 March 2017.

“Something has to give. I’m not saying I’ll start it [a players’ strike] but I feel like something needs to happen for the suits to realise these guys are serious. It comes down to how much we play. My body could not handle it.”

England and Saracens No 8 Billy Vunipola, in his book Wrecking Ball, September 2017.

“Even I’m scared watching the collisions. We’ve not seen the impact rugby will have on these young men.”

Wales and Lions coach Warren Gatland in a Guardian interview, 2 November 2017.

“From 2013 to the current season there’s been a 44% increase in contacts. Our average number of contacts per game last season was 600–650 … but this season we’ve had over 800 six times and against Exeter we had 1,042 contacts, so you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to work out there will be more injuries.”

Bath coach Toby Booth in The Rugby Paper, 14 January 2018.

“Last week we had the announcement of a new structured season for English rugby hacked out by the Rugby Football Union, Premiership Rugby and the Rugby Players Association (RPA). It was portrayed as some sort of salvation from seasonal savagery. What did we find? Not a single game has been called off, none of the cash cows have been taken to the abattoir and the three bodies have committed despicable atrocity on the Lions, choking them up into an ever smaller and more dangerous area of the season – more of a cat flap than a window.”

Sunday Times rugby correspondent Stephen Jones, 28 October 2018.

“Rugby was a game played by 15 players (over a full 80 minutes), who relied on the tactical ability of each player to use his unique skills, maintain his strength, fitness and energy to last for the whole game, while attempting to wear down the opposition, physically and mentally, to take advantage of the final quarter, as the match reached its crescendo. “Now, we have a squad of 23 allowing over half the team to be replaced by a coach who monitors all for signs of fatigue or failure in his selected group as the game progressed.”

Former England prop forward Jeff Probyn in his column in The Rugby Paper, 21 October 2018.

“Our view is that the game has actually never been safer than it is now. We were devastated as were the families, the clubs and the union involved… That is a spike that is incredibly unusual… What it does is you make sure that you focus again and keep your focus and your obsession with furthering player welfare.”

World Rugby CEO Brett Gosper, interviewed by RTÉ, Ireland’s national broadcaster, after the deaths of four young French rugby players, repeats his 2016 claim rugby union “has never been safer”, February 2019.

“At the breakdown, the letter of the law is you have to bind. Yet no one binds.”

England flanker Sam Underhill highlights an ignored rugby law in The Rugby Paper, 10 March 2019.

“Rugby union is losing its way. There are times when it seems the only purpose of the sport is profit. Professionalism was an anything but smooth journey until recent tragic events [the Covid-19 virus crisis]. The pursuit of profit has poisoned the path it has taken.”