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.

NZ Rugby World - - Contents -

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.

SAM CANE

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from New Zealand

© PressReader. All rights reserved.