The numbers 7, 34, 46 and 93 probably don’t mean much to you. They represent four of my favourite motorcycle racing champions who carried those numbers for most of their wins. Texan Kevin Schwantz only won the world championship once and though he carried 34 the rest of the time and it’s been retired in his honour, he chose to use #1 for the 1994 season. Who?
Barry Sheene (7), The Doctor (Valentino Rossi, 46) and the incredible reigning 2019 champion Marco Marquez (93) are names you might know. Schwartz is probably not among them. Each of these four adopted their lucky numbers and turned them into icons that helped market their success. I guess you can always use a number lower than your actual ranking so taking on 93 might not seem overly ambitious (except I’m wondering if 93 is a goal of race wins – he’s on 82 MotoGP wins already). As to Schwantz, he’d have been champion more often if not for Wayne Rainey, Wayne Gardner, Mick Doohan and Randy Mamola. Schwantz retired from Grand Prix racing after a series of horrific crashes, sensibly, after his arch rival Wayne Rainey was paralysed in another. The point of Schwantz for me and many was his ‘do or die’ attitude typified by his use of his unusual height (for a motorbike racer) as an air brake – he’d brake later into corners and he’d sit up to use his frame as an additional air brake, gaining precious tenths in every corner. Insane.
I could go on about Marco Marquez who I went to Austin to see in his second MotoGP race. Austin is home to the Circuit of the Americas and a little known fact is that it was co-designed by Kevin Schwantz. Marquez had won the MotoGP2 series in 2012 and took on the MotoGP from 2013 and I went to see him because his racing style was utterly insane. His elbows and indeed, the chinstrap of his helmet seem to rub the ground as he hangs out of his bikes in the acutest of corners at ridiculous speeds.
The point of the horrific accidents mentioned here is that the tracks have been massively improved over the last 25 years. There are less things to crash into.
Let’s switch to rugby because I broke my back at 18 and I was told to never go parachute jumping (which really hacked me off). Yes, it seems I am attracted to three of the most dangerous of sports. I got onto a Yamaha 50cc shortly after the brace was removed from my spine. It had some modifications that made it unusually fast and fun. I progressed to the relative safety of motocross with a Bultaco 250 after some road crashes, first on a Bridgstone 175 and then more seriously, on a Suzuki 550 on a motorway. My love of all things related to motorbiking ended with a Suzuki 1000 which it turned out, I loved much less than my soon to be wife. And there’s no bungee jumping for me either.
I am a very proud Leinster rugby supporter. Let’s be clear. We, in this house, are a Leinster fan club. I had played rugby in school but again, was advised not to play competitive rugby by quite an authority, the Irish Rugby Team doctor, who happened to be the consultant to whom my very broken spine was referred. So I played ‘touch’ rugby for ten years for fun.
I turned on the TV the other night to find a rerun of the 2018 European Cup final. The game was played in Spain and we travelled to Bilbao for the day. I’m pleased to remind us that Leinster beat Racing 92 and we came home having bumped into the team twice; once while they warmed up on a communal basketball court in the centre of town and then in the airport after winning.
I saw a TV close-up of one of the faces of one of the injured players, Dan Leavy. There was blood everywhere. It didn’t look like that while we were in the stadium. His 2018 had him lifting the Six Nations title together with the European and league double with Leinster. Within a year, he was injured and has been off rugby for year since. His injuries are visible, knee ligaments and perhaps his career is done. This remains to be seen.
Injuries are the problem in rugby. The best players have to play too many games. They have to play too many games because they are good but also because they need to play that many games in order to earn a salary. And those salaries are so high that the clubs need the players to play more games in order to earn the money to pay the salaries. It’s a vicious circle.
Leinster managed to get to the European final for the fifth time last year in 2019. Of course we went to Newcastle for the day. Unfortunately Leinster lost a European Cup final for the first time. Saracens were the deserved winners on the day. As one guy bemoaned, it was a bad day at the office for Leinster.
It’s not a coincidence that salaries became a hot topic in 2019. 2019 was a World Cup year and Dan Leavy would have been in Japan but for injury. Players who play for their country would’ve already played full seasons for their clubs. And then they had the honour of playing for their nation in the rugby World Cup. Extra extra games for which they are not necessarily conditioned correctly but are honoured and incentivised to play. The club can’t hold back a Leinster or a Saracens player who might play in the rugby World Cup because clubs may need those same players to play in the European Cup final. The elite players play more games. The very few elite players take on more injuries. It’s a vicious circle.
The biggest problem facing rugby may be that the professional era is only 20 years old. We don’t know what the long-term implications are for the players who are playing at the top of their game in what has become an increasingly brutal sport. It is not a coincidence that the professional players career lengths are on average shortening. It’s not a coincidence that the number of people who are in their teens and early 20s are playing professionally. It’s because of the attrition.
Meanwhile, we’ll still buy our season tickets to Leinster. We’ve been enjoying a purple patch that has lasted over a decade. It’s been an incredible run. Will it end because it’s a cycle and others will work out how to win better? Will it end because of some financial impropriety at Leinster? Will it end because of gerrymandering in the IRFU? Will it end because rugby becomes too dangerous?
I used to really love motorcycle racing. I still admire the racers for their courage, foolhardiness and the sheer spectacle of it all. But it comes at a cost that I’m troubled by. And I don’t think much more can be done to make it safer and retain the excitement.
I still love rugby. But it comes at a cost that I’m troubled by. I think we have a duty of care to the players and I believe a lot can still be done to make it safer and retain the excitement. However, I suspect that rugby will be following NFL into a long twighlight. It’s only a few years before the first players of the professional era are likely to be seen to be developing early dementias from the under-recognised concussions.
Remember this is not an essay. These are just my thoughts on the day.
If you want to look at rugby more thoroughly, read Unholy Union (2019) by Michael Aylwin with Mark Evans. I don’t know what read to recommend for motorbike racing but over a million people have watched this Marco Marquez crash last October. He recovered same day, then won the championship by four races the next day, his eighth MotoGP championship in nine attempts. Insane.