During the week I had discussions with two people who have differing opinions on the way the game of rugby is played today and the effects of the way the game is played.

One was with a parent with some experience at first class level, and after a schoolboy game he said he thought the game hasn't changed since he started playing at Belfast, now a suburb of Christchurch, about 10km down the road from Kaiapoi – where I started playing and refereeing, albeit a long time before him.

The other was with a coach of a Wanganui Premier team who was lamenting the fact his squad is getting seriously depleted through injuries to players.

The same could probably be said for other local teams, as well as most of the Super Rugby franchises, where many top players are regularly unavailable though injury.


Toss in the news this week that Highlanders flanker Shane Christie has been forced to retire through the on-going effects of concussion, and we can see things seem to be getting worse.

Players certainly seem to train much harder than when I was playing senior rugby.

Mind you, when you are in the depths of a freezing Central Otago evening where there is more steam rising from the players than from the Kingston Flyer after a few shovelfuls of Kaitangata bituminous coal, then training for prolonged periods was often far from the players' minds.

As well as all the training players do these days there is the conditioning, as well as gym work, to help prepare themselves for the inevitable collisions that occur week in, week out on the playing field.

Back in the "good old days" where many players were farmers doing the hard yards on the farm (think of the Meads brothers here) and no-one was professional, players probably thought conditioning was a hair product rather than preparing the body for a weekend game of rugby.

So, is the game more dangerous to play now than it used to be when the All Blacks went on three month overseas tours last century?

Whether or not it is more dangerous is a matter of conjecture but it is certainly played in a number of different ways than it was "back then".

The first obvious change is in how tackles are effected.

Back then, players were taught to tackle low, preferably around the bootlaces, so that the ball carrier would go to ground.

Arriving forwards would then attempt to go over the top of players and the ball on the ground, using their boots in a rucking action to win the ball.

Players on the ground who attempted to hang on to the ball often bore the scrape marks of boot sprigs in the shower after the game, but they were never seriously injured and would be playing again the next Saturday.

In modern times, tacklers aim much higher on the ball-carrier's body and are taught to lead with the shoulder and then wrap their arms around him, either knocking him to the ground or forcing a maul by keeping him on his feet.

If the ball carrier goes to ground the first arriving player trying to win the ball will have their heads down and bodies in a stooped posture where they are then prime targets for opposing players to "clean out" by trying to move them out of the way, and none too gently.

This is where a lot of injuries occur.

In the laws of the game, players must bind on to another player (of either team) when joining a ruck.

As in the tackle, they can still lead with the shoulder but I wonder how many genuinely use their arms in the cleaning-out action?

Another change in the game these days is that there are a lot of "pick-and-go" actions after successive breakdowns in play, usually after tackles or quick rucks. These often lead to more big tackles.

When one team lays siege on the other team's goal line there will inevitably be more big tackles.

While kicks for touch in general play were more common in the past, attacking kicks now often lead to challenges in the air for the ball, where the occasional collision between players can lead to serious injuries.

There is no doubt as a result of the focus on conditioning, training and nutrition these days players are bigger, faster and stronger.

Just watch schoolboy First XV rugby on TV and you will see the size of some of these young players.

Bigger, faster players inevitably lead to more energy being expended in collisions.

The object of the game has remained the same – "by carrying, passing, kicking or grounding the ball to score as many points as possible, with the team with the greater number of points being the winner of the match."

The law makers have continually tinkered with the laws over the past fifty or sixty years to change the way teams go about achieving this objective.

In some instances, this has been done to counter the dominance of teams from one country, like taking the emphasis off the good old-fashioned ruck and introducing the maul to the game.

In others, it has been done to protect players from serious injury, such as in collisions in the air.

High and dangerous tackles are punished in more severe ways by referees.

Some of the changes have come about because of the use of television to broadcast important matches.

Rugby has a product to sell and needs to make it as attractive as possible to gain sponsorship and publicity.

But along the way, such changes may have inadvertently made the game more dangerous to play, especially at the higher levels like provincial, Super and test rugby.