Black eyes and bruises: The medals of rugby’s warriors

Story highlights

Physical nature of rugby means that bruises and injuries are common

Players are fitter and stronger than ever due to modern training regimes

England player Simon Shaw says game has transformed during his career

Rules have tightened up against dangerous play to curb stray boots and flying fists

CNN  — 

Broken noses, black eyes, bent fingers – rugby players wear their battle scars as badges of honor.

“You’re never in danger of not being seen as a rugby player,” says England’s Simon Shaw, who at 6 feet 8 inches (2.03 meters) tall is never in danger of not being seen.

“Rugby you wear on your face, basically.”

After a 15-year international career, Shaw has his fair share of bumps and bruises to take into his third World Cup in New Zealand.

Among the marks the game has left on his frame over the years is a classic rugby war wound, one that is increasingly rare in the modern, headgear-wearing era: a cauliflower ear. But his is a minor example compared to some former players.

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England scrum coach and former player Graham Rowntree is naturally blessed with ears like taxi doors, but the former loosehead prop augmented them with years of hard service in front row of the scrum.

As one of the ways to restart play, the set scrum is also one area of the game that can be hard to referee – and what really goes on in there is only really known by the players themselves.

But if the battle scars of rugby haven’t changed much since Shaw first started playing in 1990, he says that pretty much every other part of the game has been transformed.

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Professionalism, training regimes, nutritionists and physios have all combined to create the modern players’ physiques.

“It amuses me that in adverts and in films that get made about rugby, often they’re blokes that are overweight and with beer bellies. That’s not the case anymore,” Shaw says.

“Bumps and minor injuries are part and parcel of the game, given the strength and the speed of players playing now. But also guys now are conditioned more to take the hits.

“It can look worse than it is as these days there are something like 15 TV cameras trained on every game. It can even be in 3-D and you can watch it in slow motion.”

That’s easy for Shaw to say. His enduring toughness has given him the ability to play at the highest level for over 20 years. But for armchair spectators, the hard-hitting part of rugby they find so appealing remains best sampled vicariously.

“I’ve played with dislocated fingers. You often get (injuries) a couple of days before a game. You just tape them up and get on with it,” Shaw says.

The ultimate example of “getting on with it” must be former New Zealand captain Wayne “Buck” Shelford. In a match against France in 1986, his scrotum was ripped by an opponent’s studded boot. It’s a horrific injury that would make most never want to play again, but Shelford went to the sideline, had it stitched up and amazingly went back on the field to play the rest of the match.

Shelford has said that he doesn’t remember the incident or the game itself, having also been knocked out and losing a few teeth as well.

Rules have tightened up against dangerous play to curb stray boots and flying fists.

“The game isn’t quite as ferocious nowadays,” says Shaw. “Well, basically there are not quite as many fights.”

Spear tackling and taking out players who are jumping for the ball are not allowed because of the potentially career or even life-threatening consequences.

As well as tighter laws, having so many cameras at big matches has meant that players can’t get away with any foul play behind the referee’s back. Certainly nothing like the organized brawl that took place on the British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa in 1974 that has become a rugby legend.

After some violent play in previous matches, Lions captain Willie John McBride decided before the match in Port Elizabeth that his team would “get their retaliation in first” at the first sign of South African aggression.

When “99” was called at a lineout, each one of the 15 Lions players took a swing at an opponent, meaning the referee couldn’t identify the instigator of the fight. Not one player was sent off.

As he looks forward to what will probably be his last international appearances, Shaw has no nostalgia for the old days. The game remains tough enough without too many of the extras.

“The level of rucking (a contest for the ball after a tackle) has pretty much been eradicated from the game, which has made it a lot safer. You don’t come away from a game with a road map on your back made of ruck marks.”