Etienne Dussartre tells Jacob Whitehead why he believes players should be red-carded for croc rolls

Dangers of Rugby’s Crocodile Roll – The incident

“When I look back at the video it seems like it’s a really quick incident, but in my mind it lasts for much longer.”

It was in the opening minutes of a Top 14 relegation battle that a crocodile roll caused Etienne Dussartre’s knee to explode. His Grenoble side were embroiled in a desperate scrap for survival and this visit to bottom-placed Perpignan in March 2019 was their chance to haul themselves out of danger.

For Dussartre, who was 26 at the time, there was also a degree of personal pressure. “I had already signed a contract for a ProD2 team next year,” he explains. “I was still wondering whether if I played well, maybe I could find another deal, maybe even stay at Grenoble if we stayed in the first division.”

His career to that point had been a constant battle to establish himself in the Top 14. A ball-handling centre, Dussartre came through the academy at Racing 92 in the same cohort as Virimi Vakatawa and Camille Chat, learning his trade in the first team alongside the galacticos of Dan Carter, Johnny Sexton and Joe Rokocoko.

Opportunities were understandably limited and a move to Grenoble followed, with Dussartre playing a key part in their promotion to the French top flight in his debut season there. It was his side’s first year back in the big league and he’d finally had a run of starting opportunities in the No 13 jersey.

Perpignan’s small stadium was a bear-pit that evening, the stands emblazoned with raucous voices in red and gold. The home side were hanging onto a 10-7 lead with 15 minutes gone when Dussartre spotted an opportunity for a steal in the Perpignan half.

“I was defending, trying to get the ball, and two players came in from the side. One grabbed my head, the other my upper body, as well as trapping my leg. I was completely stuck, I couldn’t do anything.

“It was tough because I knew an injury was going to happen, and I tried to resist a little bit, but my knee basically collapsed. The physio and the doctor came, and they knew it was over for me.”

The prognosis for his swollen and buckled knee wasn’t good. Three of his four knee ligaments – the ACL, MCL, and PCL – were completely torn. He had surgery five days later.

Dangers of Rugby’s Crocodile Roll – The controversy

Why are we talking about this now? The serious knee injury England back-row Jack Willis suffered against Italy in the second weekend of the Six Nations has ignited a debate about the crocodile roll’s legality.

Jean de Villiers, James Horwill and Paul O’Connell have all suffered injuries in similar incidents while former England and Fiji Sevens coach Ben Ryan has been calling for the technique to be banned for years.

Dussartre’s own experience had completely changed the way he watches rugby. “Every ruck, even though people wouldn’t be getting injured, you’re expecting the worse. That is something which follows me now. You’re fearful when you see someone getting twisted into an uncomfortable position.”

He is adamant that rucks need to be reformed, that they are fundamentally broken. “The rucks now are a mess. If you want to find a penalty at every ruck, I think you can.

“There is obviously a lot of development around concussion, which is a real concern, but if you’re really concerned about player welfare you need to pay attention to the rucks.”

Referees face a difficult task with the speed and complexity of the breakdown, but for Dussartre there are some possible solutions, and his first idea is a simple one. “At some point you have to reward a good jackler. If they are first, in a good position, and have the ball, then maybe defenders have to be there more quickly. That’s all.”

Dangers of Rugby's Crocodile Roll

Jack Willis is taken off on a stretcher during the Italy game (Getty Images)

There is a paradox to being an effective jackler, that the more closely you follow the laws, the more vulnerable you are. Dussartre was injured while executing a legal attempt at a turnover, entering through the gate, supporting his own bodyweight, and showing a clear release. He believes that to avoid injuries, referees must better enforce the existing rules.

“There are so many grey areas specifically in rucks, (but) maybe it’s also being more careful about players coming in from the side. You can’t croc roll a player otherwise. I would say the easiest way for referees to deal with it is to ensure people are not entering from the side.”

Dangers of Rugby’s Crocodile Roll – The punishment

It shouldn’t just be referees who assume responsibility for player safety, Dussartre believes fellow professionals should look out for each other. This February has seen a string of red cards, with two in the opening rounds of the Six Nations and five in a single Premiership weekend.

“Players need to be more aware of how dangerous it can be, that’s my perspective,” says Dussartre.

Sebastian Negri seemed suitably apologetic about his involvement in Willis’s injury, going over to the medical cart to see the Wasps flanker and tweeting the next morning.

There’s an extent to which every party involved in rugby must bear some responsibility for the crocodile roll, the players and referees on the field, but also the coaches off it. In a game of split-second decisions, with masses of over 100kg being thrown about the field, players do what they’ve been trained to do.

“When I was younger and playing in the (Racing) academy we had a wrestling coach. This is something they did quite a lot, integrating wrestling skills into rugby, and the croc roll was one of these techniques.

“I remember every time we did this that people were worried because we knew someone might hurt their back, or get their elbow injured, it would be painful after the session.”

Behaviours are manifestations of habit, and if players are to stop performing dangerous crocodile rolls, Dussartre believes they need to be punished. Discipline should be stern.

“For me it’s a red card. If you want to educate players so that they understand, then the red card is the most efficient way. You should in addition ban players for a few weeks, or if the referee doesn’t see it they should be cited afterwards.

“My injury, maybe if you took the two players separately, then I wouldn’t have been injured. But bad luck shouldn’t play a part in such significant injuries. It shouldn’t be outcome driven. You need to make sure that there is a rule for players to follow.”

Dangers of Rugby’s Crocodile Roll – The aftermath

Dussartre is still living with the consequences of his injury. He couldn’t sleep for the first month and that summer had to uproot his life to fulfil his contract at ProD2 side Angoulême.

After ten months of difficult recovery, including two different spells at the rehabilitation centre CERS Capbreton, he returned to rugby. Yet he was stepping onto the field not knowing if he should really be on it.

A week before, his surgeon had revealed that the graft to repair the ACL hadn’t been entirely successful, and that another surgery may need to follow.

“He told me that I could still play, but if I kept training at the same frequency and intensity, what I needed to do to play professionally, in three or four years I’d have a very bad knee, with a lot of arthritis.

“It was full of emotion. I was really happy to play, but I felt weird because the doctor told me it was my choice, and I was not entirely comfortable with that.

“My first game was not that good, I was hesitating during the match because I didn’t really have the agreement of the surgeons. I could see that my level was not the same, that I was different, and wasn’t enjoying it as much. Now I knew what it was like to get seriously injured; what I was putting on the line.”

Etienne Dussartre in action for France U20 in 2013 (AFP/Getty Images)

After three or four more games, and with the season then suspended due to coronavirus, Dussartre decided to stop. “Rugby was not everything for me. I’ve always been careful and kept studying, so when Covid came I had some introspection about my situation, where I wanted to go and where I was. I applied to the Cambridge Judge Business School and got admitted, which was a great achievement for me.”

There is one rugby itch left to scratch. “If I could play in the Varsity Match I would be more than happy. That would be great. I can still play, but training every day, that’s not an option for me with my knee. Rugby is special and I’m really grateful for my career, even though it wasn’t the most successful.”

So what next for the crocodile roll? Dussartre has offered numerous suggestions for a way forward and, if governing bodies listen, it shouldn’t be a debate that needs to arise again, when another knee is in tatters and another promising career threatened.

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