By Alan Dymock
AS RUGBY becomes more competitive, more sponsor-driven, more about the trophies than the humans involved, there is a chance that some folk could get chewed up and spat out. Folk so in love with the game and so desperate to grace the paddock that they will do anything.
At the very bottom rung this can refer to apprentice or academy professionals who have to concede so much just to get a foothold in the game, postponing alternative lives because you don’t get anywhere without sacrifice. This is the way of things and is never likely to change. However, there is also a layer at the top, of players willing to damage themselves to continue.
Juan Smith retired from rugby after succumbing to an Achilles injury that had blighted him since 2011. A fierce flanker known not to take prisoners, it was odd to see him concede defeat. Now, though, he is looking set for a return to rugby with vault-emptying specialists Toulon.
Rugby is blessed with stories about players coming back against the odds, but the fear is that a team like Toulon will happily snap up a name – a name so in love with the game that he will believe beyond all doubt that he is destined to return – and if it does not pan out, so what?
One hopes that Smith does return, without any serious consequences or even the breaking of his spirit, but the odds are against him.
It may be simple fables, but the persistent stories of French rugby are of brutal contest at training before the ‘survivors’ make up the team at the weekend. This will obviously have moved on and superstars must be protected, but Smith was never one to compromise. Last season Nathan Hines explained to me during an interview for Rugby World that at Clermont, a hyper-competitive team, any players missing hard sessions to lie and rest or receive treatment were mocked relentlessly. Players felt they had to be in the trenches together.
Toulon, with its myriad stars, may not be like this, but they too are hyper-competitive. They also have previous with throwing money at an injured player who ended up playing little part. Rocky Elsom anyone? Of course, he was not likely to despair at his dream ending.
Also, earlier this summer, former Toulon player Rory Lamont spoke out against coaches making injured players play or good doctors advice being neglected. He did not name Toulon specifically and it would be remiss to suggest that his interview on player welfare suggests Toulon are the neglectful ones, but he did speak of the massive damage one can receive playing in the Top 14 – a league that looks set to be unflinchingly competitive this season – and it is implied that he has been asked to play through pain in “different countries.”
What we can say of Toulon is that they lust after familiar names who are in no danger of playing international rugby. Smith wants a return and is willing to travel for it, and for the money it is worth a shot. He is a big, big boy and is capable of making his own decisions. For teams like Toulon, though, they will continue forward apace, regardless of how many acquisitions fall thrugh or how many dreams are hurt.
Either way, should he pass a medical and join or not, Juan Smith will be in some form of pain this season.