The injury toll in this year’s Super Rugby is through the roof prompting fears the game has reached an unsustainable level of physicality.
THE INJURY COUNT IN SUPER RUGBY HAS BEEN OFF THE SCALE IN 2018. Gregor Paul looks at the reasons why.
No one wants to say anything, not definitive or alarming, but it’s obvious plenty of coaches, players and probably administrators, are beginning to be concerned by the incredible injury rates that have struck in Super Rugby.
The physicality of the professional game has been climbing steadily for the last decade as the players become bigger, faster and stronger. Everyone can see that – the hits have more impact and there seems to be more of them.
That has made injuries part of the package. Coaches rarely, if ever, have their full squad available. It just doesn’t happen and no one really is overly troubled by it.
That is how it is in the top flight – there will be a couple of players each week teams would rather have had on the field but coaches have tended to not moan or complain. What’s the point in fretting about injuries?
It is a contact game, or more accurately a game based around collisions so it’s not realistic to imagine that 23 players will take the field one week and be available again the next.
But this year the picture has changed. The injury toll has gone off the scale. Properly, quite madly, off the scale.
Certainly, for the Chiefs and the Blues, there have been times when it has gone beyond the possibility of being ignored and shrugged off as all being part of the game.
Just three rounds into the competition and the Chiefs had literally half their squad unavailable. They had 18 players injured and many of them were out for the year.
The carnage was endless. Dominic Bird damaged a shoulder in the opening game which required surgery and ruled him out for the season.
Nepo Laulala broke his arm a week later and then Mitch Brown ripped knee ligaments. That came after Atu Moli and Tim NanaiWilliams had already been told they wouldn’t be playing in 2018.
Kane Hames’ future is not known while he battles concussion issues and Aiden Ross broke an ankle in early April.
Almost unbelievably, the Chiefs reached the point where all six of their original props were not available to play and they have been forced to scour the country for cover.
It hasn’t been so different at the Blues, except their issues have been at lock and in the back three. Just like the Chiefs, by April, they too had 18 players unavailable.
And just like the Chiefs, most of their walking wounded were suffering from major injuries.
Sonny Bill Williams had a broken wrist. George Moala had major ligament damage to his chest and was ruled out for the season, Scott Scrafton had ripped knee ligaments and was also gone for 2018 and Michael Collins broke a bone in his hand.
By the time the Blues played the Highlanders in mid-April, coach Tana Umaga had been forced to seek short-term replacements just to get 23 players on the field.
He was dragging in players from around the country and he could hardly ignore that fact when he named his team to play at Eden Park. Such was the crises, Umaga had to shift Stephen Perofeta from first-five to fullback – a move that he reluctantly had to make not by choice, but by necessity.
“It seems all the New Zealand Super teams are suffering from a high attrition rate and we are no different,” Umaga said.
“We didn’t have any other options [with Perofeta] to be honest in terms of our fullback stocks. Our back three is where we have been hit the hardest. It just seems all those injuries are in one position for us.
“You can’t control injuries and they are happening at every club. It is part of the game, so you have to get on and be like everyone and scour the country and find some players to ensure you have good cover.
“It is tough. It is testing the depth of the country not just the regions and I am sure that people will be thinking about that [increasing squad sizes] in Wellington, but everything comes at a cost…you know how it is.
“It is an unusual year in terms of the amount of injuries we are having and it has been right from the start. It started in the preseason, the extra players we had to bring into our squad. It is happening all over the place and it is tough to deal with.
“It is one of those things and the type of injury. It is not as if they are hamstrings, they are broken bones, fractures… contact injuries and you can’t do much about that.”
While the Blues and Chiefs had the most extensive casualty lists, the other three teams were hardly immune.
Super Rugby proved to be merciless. It inflicted injury at a quite staggering rate with around 25 per cent of the playing base unavailable in any given weekend in most of the first half of the year.
The Hurricanes didn’t have access to All Blacks Dane Coles, Nehe Milner-Skudder
IT IS AN UNUSUAL YEAR IN TERMS OF THE AMOUNT OF INJURIES WE ARE HAVING AND IT HAS BEEN RIGHT FROM THE START. IT STARTED IN THE PRESEASON, THE EXTRA PLAYERS WE HAD TO BRING INTO OUR SQUAD. IT IS HAPPENING ALL OVER THE PLACE AND IT IS TOUGH TO DEAL WITH.’ TANA UMAGA
or Jeffery Toomaga-Allen when they kicked off and then they lost TJ Perenara to a knee injury.
Liam Squire broke his thumb playing for the Highlanders and Richie Mo’unga fractured his jaw while on duty with the Crusaders. And the Crusaders, of course, began the season without Joe Moody, Owen Franks, Kieran Read and Israel Dagg – all of whom had suffered serious injury in 2017.
As much as the various coaches tried to say it was business as usual, it really wasn’t.
If most of the injuries were soft tissue – pulled hamstrings and strained calf muscles and the like – coaches would no doubt feel differently.
But that’s not what has been happening and the vast majority of players missing in action have incurred their injury in a collision and it is the escalating intensity and ferocity of the impacts which is causing concern about the longer term welfare of the players.
Rugby’s injury toll is mounting at the same time as the players have become heavier, stronger and faster than they have ever been and the suspicion that there is a direct link between increased power and increased injuries is hard to refute.
The human body, it seems, was not designed to withstand the impacts rugby is exposing it to and while the sports scientists say the players are so well conditioned, so well prepared physically that they can cope better with the impacts they create, maybe there is a point where the balance tips.
Maybe there is a point where the players become a danger to themselves – that they are now over conditioned, so big that they can generate more power than the body can safely absorb.
The growth rates have been tangible. Props ranged from 113kg to 118kg five years ago, now the best typically range from 118kg and 125kg. There are a few in the world game who are 130kg and mobile and lean at that weight.
Hookers were usually between 103kg and 110kg in 2012, now they are between 108kg and 115kg and locks tend to have to be around 120kg as opposed to the 115kg they used to be.
This evolution can be seen in the likes of Sam Cane, who came into professional rugby six years ago at 100kg and is now 110kg. Sam Whitelock made his debut in 2010 at 108kg and he’s now 122kg.
When the Blues played the Lions earlier in the season, that was perhaps the perfect illustration of the size and power of the athletes in the modern game. The Blues had 220kg of explosive power in their midfield coming from Sonny Bill Williams and Rieko Ioane.
Not so long ago, the All Blacks didn’t have that sort of weight and power in their second row.
Players are being battered, bruised and broken to such an extent that the question of viability is becoming hard to ignore.
Can the athletes really continue to be pounded the way they are? And then there is the added concern that many of the impact and collision injuries involve the head.
Statistics from the English Premiership show that concussion, for the last four years, has been the most prevalent injury and now accounts for half of all game time that players miss.
New Zealand doesn’t keep the same detailed statistics but few doubt the picture here would be similar if they did.
New Zealand has seen three high profile players – James Broadhurst, Ben Afeaki and Reggie Goodes – forced to retire prematurely due to concussion, while Read, Coles, Hames and Charlie Ngatai have all had prolonged battles to overcome persistent symptoms.
Cane, who came into the game in 2011 as a 100kg openside, has seen and felt how much the game has changed in his lifetime.
“As loose forwards a big part of our role is dominating collisions and that is tackle, ball carrying
and breakdown and those are all often high impact collisions,” he says.
“I don’t think you stop to think about it. But if you look back to the game five years ago when I first came on, it is definitely trending upwards in physicality and one of the concerns around that I would say is most definitely the increase in head knocks.
“That is purely, I think, from the intensity of the impacts because things are happening faster and the power of the players. One of the best ways to avoid that is to focus on technique and learn how to make adjustments late but you don’t always get it right.
“It doesn’t really worry me personally about going over the ball and knowing I am going to be hit hard. The area I think is hard is when you are the tackler and you have a low focus on the tackle and there are a couple of soft parts [to aim for] but there are some bloody hard parts ...hips, knees and if you get your head in slightly the wrong place with a big impact...”
Cane’s concern about putting his head in the wrong place is borne out by statistics which show how vulnerable players are to injury, particularly concussion, if they don’t get things right technically. World Rugby studied more than 1500 elite games between 2013 and 2015 and found that 76 per cent of head injuries occur in the tackle.
The same research found that 73 per cent of those injuries were suffered by the tackler and that if the tackler was upright or high, then it was 40 per cent more likely they would be injured.
Cane’s All Blacks teammate Sam Whitelock is in full agreement about how the game has changed physically and the increased dangers it poses.
“I think after a really physical test match and 99.99 per cent of them are, being a member of the tight five, you are definitely beaten up, sore and bruised,” he says.
“The thing I have heard some people compare it with and I totally agree is that it is like being in a light car crash and you are doing that week in week out. That is where for us, the gym recovery and getting bigger, stronger, faster and fitter comes into it.
“Without doing those things I think it would be a slippery slope and making sure you are taking time away to get your body in the best shape possible is important.
“Also the technique thing is massive. Over the last few years concussion has come to the front of people’s conversations and I think it is really good that the protocols have been in place to look after us as players because in the past they might not have been.”
The size of the players is not the only driver in this carnage-laden world.
After a near-40-year association with the All Blacks, legendary coach Wayne Smith signed off last year citing his concerns at just how intense the nature of collisions had become.
He felt that a variety of factors had colluded, but the one perhaps overlooked was the quality of specialist coaching.
“When I played I used the spider web technique to tackle, just sort of draped myself over people but you can’t get away with that today,” he said.
“The game has changed totally. There are bigger athletes, faster athletes and more specialist coaches. I have not been a specialist defensive coach all my career, so I have had to learn a lot about biomechanics. There is a lot involved in it and it is relatively complex. “There is a lot of good coaching around the world and the power generated through players’ hips is massive.”
Bigger, better coached players have all, most likely, been responsible for increasing rugby’s injury toll, but the biggest change in 2018 has been the reversion to the 2011-2015 format of three conferences.
Turning back the clock on Super Rugby seems to have fixed things commercially. Or certainly improved them.
The indications are that broadcast audiences have lifted in South Africa and Australia.
Attendances haven’t uniformly climbed but there have been major lifts in various places. The Rebels drew their biggest crowd since 2011 when they played the Hurricanes and the Bulls have seen an average of almost 18,000 turn up to their home games compared with 9,000 last year.
The sense that the competition is in free
I DON’T THINK YOU STOP TO THINK ABOUT IT. BUT IF YOU LOOK BACK TO THE GAME FIVE YEARS AGO WHEN I FIRST CAME ON, IT IS DEFINITELY TRENDING UPWARDS IN PHYSICALITY AND ONE OF THE CONCERNS AROUND THAT I WOULD SAY IS MOST DEFINITELY THE INCREASE IN HEAD KNOCKS.’ SAM CANE
I THINK IT IS ANOTHER LEVEL OF TAKING SUPER RUGBY ANOTHER NOTCH UP AND I DON’T KNOW IF WE NEED TO BE SMASHING EACH OTHER LIKE WE ARE. I THINK PEOPLE NEED ABOVE TO SEE WHAT’S HAPPENING. I THINK IT IS THE ATTRITION OF PLAYING EACH OTHER TWICE. PLAYING ONCE IS ENOUGH.’ COLIN COOPER
fall – almost terminal decline – has at least halted. The three conference format is not perfect, but it is better than the convoluted 18-team set-up that was difficult to follow and understand.
Super Rugby is not doomed and regardless of territory, what is driving the interest is the increased volume of intra-conference games. Maybe not surprisingly, local audiences love local games and the fact there are more of them this year is at the heart of Super Rugby’s revival.
Under the doomed 18-team format of 2016 and 2017 each team played six derbies, now they play eight and by doing so, Super Rugby has won back a number of disenchanted fans.
Understandably, with the financial picture considerably brighter than it has been, executives from all teams and broadcasters, are adamant they want local games to dominate any future version of the competition.
That view is particularly strong in New Zealand, where the intra-conference games are at a completely different level to anything else.
Put two New Zealand teams on the park and it looks and feels a lot more like a test than it does Super Rugby. Games featuring two New Zealand teams have, without fail, been compelling. They have been fast,
YOU JUST FEEL FOR THE PLAYERS. THEY’VE WORKED THEIR GUTS OUT FOR A LONG TIME TO GET THESE OPPORTUNITIES AND I KNOW THAT’S FOOTY, BUT IT’S HARD TO SEE WHEN YOUR TEAMMATES GO THROUGH THINGS LIKE THAT.’ SAM CANE
brutal and intense and fans have loved them.
The money men have too as the turnstiles have been moving and it would seem that the much pilloried Sanzaar has to be acknowledged for at last giving everyone what they want.
Everyone, that is, except the players and the coaches. They are not as sold on the eight derby games a year as everyone else. For those at the coalface, these games are enormously demanding and they come thick and fast.
It makes for a long season knowing that eight intense derbies await and for the elite players, they will then go into a three test series in June and straight out into Super Rugby playoffs, before they crash into the Rugby Championship.
It is too much and it was the toll the local derbies were taking in the 2011-2015 period which saw the players push for change. They didn’t particularly want the 18-team format they got, but nor were they content with what they had which is now what they have again.
For Chiefs coach Colin Cooper, who returned to Super Rugby this year having had a long stint with the Hurricanes between 2003 and 2010, it has been a never-ending surprise to see how much things have changed.
He’s talked frequently about the changed scale – the bigger squads, the bigger management teams, the longer season and the depth of preparation and recovery that is needed to keep the players available for selection.
The biggest difference for him, though, is the volume of all New Zealand clashes.
When he coached the Hurricanes, the competition was true roundrobin where every team played every other just once.
There was no home and away component and the increase to eight games a season against New Zealand opposition has surprised him at just how much it takes out of the players physically and mentally.
After he saw his side beat the Highlanders in a high-paced, high impact contest that again resulted in more long term injuries within his squad, he said: “Back in the day we didn’t use to have these derbies.
“I think it is another level of taking Super Rugby another notch up and I don’t know if we need to be smashing each other like we are. I think people need above to see what’s happening. I think it is the attrition of playing each other twice. Playing once is enough.”
As he spoke, a somewhat shattered and glum-looking Cane sat next to him, the Chiefs captain nodding along with every word Cooper said.
The skipper was still reeling after seeing his mate, loose head prop Clark, be stretchered off the field in some distress having broken his ankle. Ross had waited an age for this crack at the big time and it was all over.
“You just feel for the players,” Cane said. “They’ve worked their guts out for a long time to get these opportunities and I know that’s footy, but it’s hard to see when your teammates go through things like that.
“Aidan’s flatmates went over and patted him on the leg as he got stretchered off. You try not to dwell on those because the best thing you can do for them is to try and get a good result.”
What this means is that the players are on course for a different sort of collision – with the game’s administrators.
Sanzaar is expected to shortly release a strategic vision for the future of Super Rugby.
That report is expected to reveal a number of options are being considered to revamp the competition in 2021, including taking more games to neutral venues, expanding the number of teams to 18 or sticking with 15 teams but not necessarily all those they currently have.
The long awaited report is believed to have ruled out any prospect of Super Rugby returning to a straight round-robin format as it was between 1996 and 2010, arguing that the conference model is the only way to deliver a financially sustainable competition.
This is based on what is now an entrenched position in New Zealand, Australia and South Africa administrative and executive circles that they believe they have to play two full rounds of home and away local derbies to generate fan interest and gate revenue.
They also argue that broadcasters demand that same volume of fearsome local encounters and with these fixtures non-negotiable, there are not enough available weeks to build a format where every team ends up playing every team.
Having seen how disastrous it was in 2016 and 2017 to run an 18-team competition spread across four conferences where two had five teams and two had four teams, Sanzaar is adamant now that any expansion has to be in multiples of three.
Expansion means keeping an equal number of teams in each conference and in all probability the format we have now is the one that will be proposed for 2021 and beyond.
Proposed, but maybe not accepted as New Zealand’s players are going to inevitably give due consideration to rejecting any plan that requires them to play against each other as much as they currently are.
No one made the direct link as such, but there were whispers and rumblings among the Kiwi teams that they felt the incredible injury toll in the first eight weeks of Super Rugby was a direct consequence of so many local derbies.
The evidence is strong to believe that the injury count is higher when two New Zealand teams are on the park.
Bird was ruled out for the season playing against the Crusaders. Moala’s chest was crushed playing against the Chiefs.
Whitelock and Ryan Crotty were both concussed playing against the Hurricanes. Squire broke his thumb playing against the Crusaders; Laulala broke his arm playing against the Blues; Matt Todd broke his thumb playing against the Chiefs and Blues captain Augustine Pulu was ruled out for six weeks when he was playing against the Chiefs.
Sanzaar have their plan but they don’t have the players’ buy-in and the battle between the two could end up being the most intense collision of all.
[ABOVE] DREAM OVER The hard part about major injuries is the career damage they can cause.
THUMBS UP Matt Todd broke his thumb in the first game of the season.
DERBY TOLL It is playing against other New Zealand teams that is inflicting so much damage.
FLICK OF THE WRIST Sonny Bill Williams broke his wrist in Cape Town and missed seven weeks.