Phil Hughes died a Gladiator

Modern day sportsman like Phil Hughes are Gladiators – willing to push both the physical and mental envelope in order to make sport the spectacle it is says Tank Lanning in his Sport24 column.

Given the tragic news of Phil Hughes passing this morning as a result of being hit on the head by a Sean Abbott bouncer in an Australian domestic cricket game this week, babbling on about who coach Heyneke Meyer has picked to take on Wales in the Bok’s final Test of the year seems just a trifle trivial!

What a dreadful piece of really bad luck. Hit on the back of the head in the exact spot that saw a key artery burst, Hughes died of a cerebral brain haemorrhage – bleeding on the brain.

Spare a thought for the 22 year old Sean Abbott, who delivered the ball that in effect, killed a fellow cricketer. My thoughts and prayers go out to Abbott, and the families and friends of both families.

As sportsman round the world use this sobering incident to be thankful for their health and fitness, it is perhaps as good a time as any to reflect on the many sportsmen and woman who have lost their lives, or physical health, to the sport they love.

Naming one would trivialise the others, suffice to say that a miss-timed pull shot, tackle or foot on the break and it can all be over. Literally. I broke my neck because a miss-timed scrum engagement saw my head go into the opposition loosehead prop’s thigh with the full weight of the pack behind me. A single moment of really bad luck. Hence the new scrum engagement process that looks to eliminate such moments.

But even with the new safety first laws, the ever evolving safety equipment like helmets, scrum caps, shoulder pads and motor sport driver capsules, there is always going to be space for that dreadful piece of bad luck.

And apart from the entertainment that superstars like Duane Vermeulen, Willie le Roux and their fellow Boks provide for us every Saturday, it is this very risk of severe injury, or even death, that earns them the big money they deserve.

And while I am sure every professional sportsman is grateful to be making a living doing something they love, that career is inspired by a passion for the sport they play. A passion that sees them want to perform to the best of their ability, something that comes in the form of talent and physical hard graft to make the best of that talent, but also mental fortitude.

The “Kop doctors”, omnipresent in today’s sporting environment, can write books on the subject, but in some positions, mental fortitude includes the simple intimidation of your opposite number. Hence sledging, hence chirps in the media prior to a game, hence popping your opposition prop in the first scrum even though it comes with a penalty, hence the bouncer aimed at the opposition batsmen’s throat.

Sportsmen and women are gladiators. And while not quite the life and death variety of those that used to perform for Julius Caesar, the ones that reach the top in modern day sport are the one’s willing to push both the physical and mental envelope … Right to the bleeding edge!

And that is why we watch sport. And that is why the pros play sport. Sure, make it as safe as we possibly can, but know also, that it comes with risk.

Today is indeed a sad day for sport. And it must be remembered as such. But also remember that a young man following his passion, died doing what he loved. And for that, Phil Hughes is a hero.


  1. Well said. It may be a bit cliche but I’d much rather go out “with my boots on”.

    Terrible bad luck – that’s all there is to it.

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