Warburton: The game has become much safer

Former Wales captain Sam Warburton says he has changed his views around player safety in rugby after a comment from his autobiography, which expressed fears that a professional player could die on the pitch, was used in a plea from British & Irish legends to reduce the number of substitutions.

Shortly following the 2021 Lions series, a group of former British & Irish Lions legends made a plea to World Rugby to only allow substitutes to be made in case of injury in order to make the game safer.

The signatories were reported to include Lions legends Sir Ian McGeechan, Willie John McBride, Sir Gareth Edwards, Barry John, and John Taylor, who insisted it would be “grossly negligent” to allow the status quo of eight replacements to remain in place.

Warburton, who captained the Lions in 2013 and 2017, was also quoted in the letter addressed to World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont, fearing that “if something is not done soon, a professional player will die during a game in front of TV cameras”.

However, in writing for The Times, Warburton said he wasn’t consulted about the letter and his views about player safety have changed since he made that comment in his autobiography.

“A quote of mine that a player could die on television was referenced in it, but I must say that I made that comment in my autobiography, which was written a couple of years ago.

“I was not approached concerning the letter and I have never been contacted about anything to do with player welfare. I find that a shame because I would love to be part of those discussions. I care about the game deeply.

“But I have changed my view. I wouldn’t say now that I think someone could die on the pitch, simply because I think the game has become so much safer because of its stricter concussion protocols. The dangers of second impact syndrome have been taken away because players are removed at the first signs of any symptoms or a big head knock. That was my real worry.”

Warburton added that the idea of limiting the number of substitutions available in a match was “reasonable”, as he argued that larger, fresher players running into fatigued players could be dangerous.

“Limiting the number of replacements would not change the size of the backs or the back rowers because they all can play the full 80 minutes now anyway, but it may change the size of the front five and their impacts off the bench. Dealing with a 19-stone prop who is conditioned to play for only 30 minutes can be difficult!”

However, the former flanker said a more effective change could be made in introducing a mandatory two-week rest for concussion.

“It is still so subjective, with players having to say whether they feel dizzy, nauseous or have headaches during the return-to-play protocols. It needs to be taken out of the players’ hands if possible.”

Warburton also argued that the number of games players play each year needs to be reduced, possibly to a total of 25 for clubs and country in a year.

“I know that a lot of the die-hard club, regional and provincial fans will be upset by that, but in my view that is the way the game has got to go.

“It is true, as mentioned in the letter, that you don’t want to rock the boat while you are still playing. But I remember players saying that they would take pay cuts to play fewer games. That is why I am so adamant on less game time.”


Photo: Michael Steele/Getty Images

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Dylan Jack