Big hits

September 29, 2016

Rugby's World Cup has been surprisingly engaging--hooray for the gallant grandeur of England, France and the other small-fry nations! It has been salutary for the Celts, however, with Wales and Ireland given such a contemptuous bums' rush that each had to watch last weekend's quarter-finals on television back in their own homes and behind closed curtains. If their self-esteem is in shock, it's nothing to the severe clattering their bodies had to endure.

Mind you, that goes, with knobs on, for the surviving teams still scrapping to contest next week's final, for any rugby pitch is now a major crash site--bell-clanging ambulances, paramedics and all.

The skilful, expertly timed low tackle is a thrill of the past. The game no longer refers to tackles, but 'hits', preferably 'big hits', and the more hurtful, it seems, the better. Zap! Pow! Ughh! A sports injuries whitecoat-boffin said the other day that serious injuries in rugby had more than doubled since the game went professional a dozen years ago, with almost 70 per cent of them caused by one or other of those involved in heavy 'hits'. Bushy-tailed young colts are no longer taught or encouraged to dart or dodge, swerve or jink or sidestep: sole aim now is the sumo-collision, torso-on-torso, full-on and as powerful, even injurious, as possible. Licensed Neanderthal mugging.

The classic, extempore low tackle--taking down an opponent at full-pelt 'on the wing', and extolled by generations of schoolboy coaches--was part of the heroic lore. No more. Most fabled for my generation was the cornerflagging secateurs job on Cambridge's electric hare, John Smith, when all five of Oxford's John MacGregor Kendall-Carpenter took him round the ankles at the end of a palpitating length-of-the-field chase in the Twickenham gloaming at the very end of the 1949 University match. Five years later, same famous field on my first school trip, I saw All-Black legend, bald and bandy Bob Scott, boldly upend England's Martin Regan at full, heady gallop. Golly, did you see that? Wow!

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For olde tyme's sake, here's my lassoing log of the seven most thrillingly timely Old Testament tackles: 1960, Tom Kiernan (Ireland) on Gordon Waddell (Scotland); 1961, Haydyn Mainwaring (Barbarians) on Avril Malan (South Africa); 1971, John Taylor (British Lions) on Bruce Hunter (New Zealand); 1976, J.P.R Williams (Wales) on Jean-Francois Gourdon (France); 1978, Seamus Dennison (Munster) on Stu Wilson (New Zealand); 1994, George Gregan (Australia) on Jeff Wilson (New Zealand); and 1997, Scott Gibbs (Lions) on Os du Randt (South Africa).

I saw a couple of those for real and, for good measure to make up an apt 15, I reel off another personal eightsome which has me cheering (and wincing) in the pressbox all over again: 1983, Ollie Campbell (Lions) on Murray Mexted (New Zealand); 1980, Ray Gravell (Lions) on Gerrie Germishuys (South Africa); 1990, Scott Hastings (Scotland) on Rory Underwood (England); 1991, Micky Skinner (England) on Marc Cecillon (France); 1995, Joost van der Westhuizen (South Africa) on Jonah Lomu (New Zealand); 2003, Peter Stringer (Ireland) on Dan Luger (England); 2003, Brian O'Driscoll (Ireland) on Oliver Magne (France); and 2006, Josh Lewsey (England) on Jean de Villiers (South Africa).

Most significant in terms of context and timing, I'd say, was J.P.R's in Cardiff in 1976, and the Dennison job in Limerick two years later--a brace of imperishably operatic thunderclaps, recall of which, come to think of it, might cheer up some downcast Celts today.

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