World Rugby chiefs have warned that Sam Warburton‘s premature retirement from the sport is a “red flag” and say that players may need to adjust gruelling training regimes to protect their careers in future.
Former Wales and British & Irish Lions captain Warburton stunned rugby this week after hanging up his boots at the age of 29, citing an inability to recover from a litany of injuries that have blighted his career.
World Rugby vice-chairman Agustin Pichot said Warburton’s retirement was a warning in an era when professional rugby has become increasingly demanding for elite athletes.
“The red flags are there – Sam is one red flag – there was a tweet I saw about the number of injuries he has had and it was frightening,” Pichot told reporters in San Francisco at the Rugby World Cup Sevens.
“He had an outstanding career, but a number of injuries. We have to take care of the future generations.”
Pichot said World Rugby was in discussions with the International Rugby Players Association about setting guidelines which would limit the workloads of top-level players.
World Rugby CEO Brett Gosper indicating there could be tweaks on the way for TMO protocols - telling me it's "Constantly a work in progress" and there's always "room for improvement". Says it's been a key part of the Executive World Rugby Council meetings this week in San Fran— Adam Cooper (@adamcoopnz) July 20, 2018
The former Argentina captain acknowledged, however, that achieving uniform rules would be complicated given the often conflicting demands on players of clubs and country.
“We are working towards a training-load system,” Pichot said. “We have to learn how to integrate not only the unions but the clubs – don’t forget that.
“You can tell a union that players should only train 10 hours a week – say – but maybe the coaches at the clubs train them more.
“The coaches and owners will want them to play every single week because they want to win to make money. It has to be addressed.
“First of all is the safety of the players. The players want to earn more money, so have to train more and play more.”
Players also needed to negotiate safeguards into their contracts, Pichot said.
“We talked about it with the players last year – we said ‘We want to take care of you, but let’s be honest, when you sign a contract sometimes you don’t protect yourself, and want to play week-in week-out’. There is a balance to be made.”
Good to see Pichot, @WorldRugby acknowledge the problem. But how do you stop players getting stronger and, for all the talk of changing tackle heights/reducing substitutions is, as @mdmaylwin has observed, the end of this that rugby ceases to be rugby? No one easy answer.— Julian Guyer (@stGuyer) July 21, 2018
World Rugby meanwhile has recently moved to address the issue of head injuries caused during tackles.
Current laws allow for tackles to be made at shoulder height, but World rugby has trialled a new law which lowers the level of legal tackles to nipple height.
“There is a crucial thing coming, and a debate about where we are going with the physicality of the game and high tackles,” Pichot said.
“When we played the game – when you had a knock on the head it was seen as brave to carry on playing. We can’t do that any more, the game has changed.”
World Rugby chief executive Brett Gosper said no changes to the tackle law would be made before the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan, but hinted high tackles could be scrutinised more rigorously via the Television Match Official (TMO) system.
“There will be no law changes before the World Cup now, but there might be directive or protocol changes, for example regarding the use of the TMO,” Gosper said.
First the bouquets.
Just one day in, the tournament could already be judged a success.
The last RWC Sevens however was far less so.
Played in a deserted Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow (yes – the same one that just hosted the Football World Cup final) in the middle of a heatwave back in 2013 it was memorable only for a torrential downpour on the final day, similar to the deluge during France’s trophy presentation.
So empty was the Luzhniki during the tournament that crowd numbers barely reached 500 – in total – over the three days and so morgue-like the atmosphere that it was possible to call across to someone on the other side of the stadium and ask them to bring you a snack, if they could find a food outlet that was actually open.
Due to the strict beverage laws in place during that RWC Sevens many fans who travelled to the Russian capital actually chose to stay at their hotel and watch the games on TV rather than travel to the ground – only adding further to the odd atmosphere.
Such a non-event was 2013 it was no surprise that World Rugby spoke of dis-continuing the RWC Sevens after the sport took its place in the OIympic Sevens in Rio three years later.
But thankfully – and we may confidently say that – they decided to continue the event in what is now a busy Sevens calendar fitting in the World Series, RWC Sevens, Commonwealth Games and Olympics.
They were not short of choices for RWC 2018 with no less than 14 nations bidding to host the blue-ribbon event – England, Fiji, France, Hong Kong, Netherlands, New Zealand, Portugal, Scotland, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, United Arab Emirates and the US.
Boldly World Rugby decided to use the RWC Sevens to try and break into the great rugby sleeping giant, the US, and awarded the tournament to San Francisco.
A lot of the decisions that have been made around that hosting decision have been aimed at making the event look as attractive as possible to the national TV audience captured by host broadcaster – NBC.
Sevens with its end to end action, endless tries, exceptional skill levels and extraordinary athletes is the perfect product to win over an already saturated US sporting market.
And in players like Perry Baker, Leone Nakarawa and Portia Woodman the Sevens has the talent to tempt any sports lover to tune in – and stay for awhile.
But if World Rugby have done a lot right they have made one glaring error.
Now the brick bats.
In order to make the tournament even more tempting to that US TV audience they decided to institute a total knockout format – where one mistake would rule teams out of being in contention for the Melrose Cup.
This is unusual in Sevens as the accepted best format is the Group system, as used at the FIFA World Cup, where teams are grouped together in pools of four who play each other on a round robin basis.
After these matches are completed the top two teams in each Group then go forward to compete for the Cup while the bottom two teams in each group move into a consolation bracket.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it – the saying goes – and in introducing the “innovative” new format World Rugby has provoked unnecessary controversy and imbalance.
The greatest example of this is the Australian Men’s side who as a seeded team did not play in the opening pre-round of 16 matches.
They were set down to meet the winner of France and Jamaica, a match that Les Bleus won not surprisingly in a canter 50—0.
France, warmed up, acclimatized to the stadium and with momentum on their side then dispatched the stone cold Aussies 22-17.
I don’t know any other sporting contest around the world that would bring a team half way around the world and then give them just 14 minutes to perfect their performance.
You won’t hear any excuses from @Aussie7s men’s team. We as a collective were not good enough and we are accountable for our performance and the result. We knew the format and prepared accordingly. Appreciate the compliment and support but the team and I need to be better.— Tim Walsh (@timwalsh7s) July 21, 2018
All credit to the Australian coach Tim Walsh who refused to use the format as an excuse, saying on Twitter: “We as a collective were not good enough and we our accountable for our performance and our result.”
“We knew the format and prepared accordingly.”
It is exceedingly magnanimous by the well-credentialed Walsh but there were few Australian supporters who agreed with his sentiment.
Of course all this will be forgotten now as the RWC Sevens moves into the deciding stages but the change of format has been the only blight on what has been an overall shining success.
Let’s hope the knockout format returns to the oblivion from whence it was dragged never to darken a Sevens tournament again.
Defending champions New Zealand, HSBC World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series 2018 winners Australia, France and hosts USA will contest the Championship semi-finals after a day of hugely entertaining play at Rugby World Cup Sevens 2018 on Friday.
The 16 women’s teams got the action underway at AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants Major League Baseball team, with the innovative new ‘knock-out’ format meaning sides have to win every match to be crowned Rugby World Cup winners.
The Championship semi-finals will get underway at 22:42 (UAE time) on Saturday with Australia taking on France and New Zealand facing USA.
Fiji and Spain had the honour of opening the tournament with Las Leonas edging a tight battle 19-12 to set up a Championship quarter-final with Australia, the Olympic champions getting their campaign off to a winning start against debutants Papua New Guinea with Charlotte Caslick scoring two of their six tries in a 34-5 victory.
The two sides had met at the same stage at RWC Sevens 2013 in Moscow with Spain ending Australia’s title defence, but there was to be no repeat of that upset with Evania Pelite scoring a hat-trick in a comfortable 34-0 victory.
New Zealand were in sublime form in both matches in San Francisco, captain Sarah Goss scoring the tournament’s first hat-trick in a 57-0 defeat of first-time RWC Sevens participants Mexico in the round of 16 before powering past Ireland in the Championship quarter-finals, Michaela Blyde crossing for three tries in the 45-0 win to end the day on top of the try charts with five.
Ireland had earlier beaten England, seeded one place above them in eighth, with Amee Leigh Murphy Crowe’s second try proving the difference as her side held on to triumph 19-14 and condemn their rivals to a finish of no higher than ninth place for the second RWC Sevens running.
That match was the only one to go against the seedings in the round of 16 with 2013 runners-up Canada, hosts USA, Russia and France all keeping themselves in the race to lift the coveted trophy on Saturday evening in San Francisco.
If the first two quarter-finals were straightforward affairs for New Zealand and Australia, the third between Canada and France was a nail-biting affair that swung one way and then the other, Les Bleues racing out of the blocks with tries by Majorie Mayans and Lina Guerin only for Canada captain Ghislaine Landry to touch down on the stroke of half-time.
A great solo try by Charity Williams edged Canada ahead for the first time before Guerin and Bianca Farella traded scores to leave the sides locked at 19-19.
Extra-time seemed on the cards until Coralie Bertrand, the rookie of the year on the 2018 series, managed to reach out for the winning try to spark wild celebrations among her team-mates given it secured a first-ever RWC Sevens semi-final.
Two first-half tries by Naya Tapper then looked to have crowd favourites USA on their way to victory over Russia with a 21-5 half-time lead, but the Europeans battled back to within a score before quick-fire tries by Ilona Maher and Cheta Emba made certain of a semi-final showdown with defending champions New Zealand.
Meanwhile in the Challenge quarter-finals England, Fiji, Japan and China bounced back from their opening losses to ensure a top 12 finish.
The Challenge semi-finals will get underway at 21:14 (UAE time) with England facing China and Fiji taking on Japan.
Before then, Mexico will tackle South Africa and Papua New Guinea will play Brazil in search of their first win of RWC Sevens 2018 in the 13th-16th place play-offs.
Championship Semi-finals (UAE time)
Australia v France – Saturday July 21 22:42
New Zealand v USA – Saturday July 21 23:04