High-risk crash-tackle wins games, but just as easily ends careers, writes Kevin Mitchell
Sunday February 8, 2004
There is more than a passing concern in rugby that Jonny Wilkinson's lingering shoulder injury has put his career in jeopardy just as he is cementing his position as the pre-eminent fly-half in the game.
He and his team-mates at Newcastle and in the England side will share in the widespread anxiety over his future during the next eight to 10 weeks, as he recuperates from surgery this Wednesday to correct damage to nerves in his right shoulder.
It is inconceivable that Wilkinson, at 24, is staring at retirement. But there is every possibility that the player who, in the space of a month last year, won the World Cup, the BBC Sports Personality of the Year and an OBE, will never be the same unfettered force again.
Providing he recovers satisfactorily, he will then be faced with another dilemma: whether to curb his physical game or continue making the sort of hits that have made life near the base of the scrum a nightmare for opposing stand-offs. You would bet on the latter.
Worryingly, he has revealed the problem has been with him for most of his senior career. He suffers from what he calls 'stinger' reactions in the nerves down his arms and other parts of his body after he has delivered one of his trademark tackles.
Rob Andrew, his coach at Newcastle, sought to downplay concerns yesterday. 'It's not as if this is a last measure or anything. This is the outcome of considered talks between all the parties concerned.'
Clearly it is a last measure. There is nowhere to go after surgery, as the ever-candid Wilkinson conceded. 'You have to accept that, after the operation, the nerve might still be damaged from the tackle and doesn't want to come back,' he said. 'I'd have to deal with that. But having the operation means that we'll have done all we can.'
Wilkinson, who has won many close games for England with his impeccable kicking, has paid the price for his commitment to a discipline of the game that is gathering in intensity. And it is an art borrowed and refined from what once would have been an unlikely source: rugby league.
For so long considered off-limits, league has had a huge influence on the development of rugby union since the professional era began in 1995.
And few know more about the big hit than Shaun Edwards, who won every honour there is in league before joining Wasps as the backs coach.
A few hours before yesterday's crunch match against Bath, Edwards took time out on an incongruously peaceful stroll along the river to talk about the skillful business of tackling like a truck.
More than any other aspect of the 13-man code, the crash-tackle has transformed union. It has certainly changed Wasps, where, according to Edwards and a few other good judges, Fraser Waters has become 'the best defensive player in the world'.
It is a high-risk strategy in more ways than one. Not only does it leave few options to regroup if the hit misses, it makes considerable physical demands on its exponents.
Noting Wilkinson's injury, Edwards observed that this is what total rugby is all about. And it demands far more preparation than in the amateur days of union. 'We do a lot of work with weights at Wasps, building the sort of upper-body strength you need to play like this.
'It's a nightmare to play against, because of the angles of contact. If a player is looking to take a pass from his right, for instance, the point of contact for the tackler is not necessarily head-on but from the ball-carrier's left.
'It requires a couple of things: a lot of organisation and very good and aggressive players. The players have to be able to read the offence and need to be extremely motivated. If you get it wrong, your whole game can fall to bits. And, over the course of a season, you are going to let in a few tries.
'It does not mean you have to abandon the drift defence common in union. You need both. Fraser Waters, for instance, is a player of great vision. He does it to perfection.
'What we have tried to do at Wasps is turn our defence into a form of attack. Last season, 30 per cent of our tries came as a direct result from our tackling, balls bouncing loose and our taking advantage of that.'
The league men are everywhere in union, on and off the field. The players who have most obviously affected how the codes have mixed in recent seasons are Jason Robinson, with England (joined now by Henry Paul), Iestyn Harris, Scott Gibbs and Scott Quinnell, with Wales, Andy Craig, the former Great Britain under-19 centre, with Scotland, and the dynamic trio of Tuqiri, Sailor and Rogers in the Australian team.
On the coaching side there are Phil Larder (defence) and Joe Lydon (sevens) with England; Clive Griffiths (Wales), Mike Ford (Ireland), and the Australian Steve Anderson (Scotland), who has replaced the former dual international Alan Tait as defensive coach. At club level, Gloucester have Dave Ellis.
It's a list bristling with experience - and hardness. Whatever union folk thought about rugby league before they investigated their methods, they have been made acutely aware in recent seasons how physically demanding the northern game is.
Jonny Wilkinson never had any qualms about that. As Steve Black, the conditioning coach at Newcastle, has said, nobody works harder on every aspect of his game than Wilkinson. But, as our Jonny is finding out, even heroes bruise.