The Crying Game?


So, what do Mike Brown, Schalk Burger, Danny Cipriani, Dylan Hartley, Manu Tuilagi and Billy Vunipola all have in common? 

You might assume the answer would be a great deal of talent. Perhaps an impressive collection of international caps and medals.  Or maybe the fact that each of their surnames would represent a decent hand in Scrabble.

The correct answer is somewhat more mundane yet troubling and can be found in The Daily Telegraph's recently published Rugby Injury Audit - they have each suffered a serious injury playing in the Aviva Premiership this season, facing a collective 56 weeks out the game and quite possibly more. 

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Of the twelve Premiership clubs, ten reported suffering a total of 82 injuries as at the date of publication, with the remaining two declining to provide statistics. If injuries were to continue at this rate, we'd reach a total of 935 come seasons end and the figure will likely rise, given that the number of injuries sustained traditionally accelerates as the season draws to a close. 

So we've seen a brutal start to the domestic campaign, with Wasps having been forced to operate without an entire XV, whilst Newport Gwent Dragons at one stage had 24 players out, representing an astonishing 48% of their entire squad. 

Yet there has been talk of extending future campaigns further. That appears to be a recipe for disaster. As  Ben Youngs, scrum-half for England and Leicester Tigers has put it, this simply isn't on as "players want to finish on their terms when they want to finish. They don't want it to be four years shorter. That's important".  

Premiership Rugby urges caution and says an objective measure of injury risk will only come through the annual Professional Rugby Injury Surveillance Project and that for now, it is  "impossible to draw conclusions". Over the last 13 seasons, the project has monitored the injury risk of Premiership Rugby players domestically, across European and international competition, as well as in training.

This appears difficult to square with the reality of players seeing their careers cut short.  Players such as Will Fraser, who won the European Cup and Premiership double with Saracens and compares his experience of being forced to retire from playing because of a neck injury, as being 'like a big anvil being dropped on you'.

One possibility is that the game has become increasingly physical. Certain law variations, introduced this season, have become a major factor. For example, there have been dozens more contacts per game this season, with law changes designed to encourage attacking play, with the game moving towards less kicking, keeping the ball for long periods. The sport's global governing body, World Rugby, introduced these law changes and stresses that this was done with player welfare at the front and centre of the process.

Simon Halliday, Chairman of European Club Rugby, has recently pointed to poor tackling techniques as well as the number of games played in an already cluttered season, ignoring time spent training and at the gym. He notes that the assets/players are being rented out for money to the Unions or in some cases and in effect owned by both Unions and Leagues. 

Lessons could be learnt from the recent experience of the Rugby Football Union, which has seen a new exercise programme introduced to schools and age-grade club rugby having a “phenomenal impact” in reducing injuries and concussions. The figures speak for themselves - an overall reduction of 72% with the number of concussions reduced by 59% for players who completed the exercises at least three times a week. Almost 1,000 clubs and coaches signed up to the programme in the first two weeks of this season. The programme promotes exercises to improve running techniques and changing direction, lower-body balance and targeted resistance training, and has been rolled out after an extensive trial involving 40 schools and more than 2,500 14-18 year-olds over a three-year period.

This comes just a matter of weeks after Professor Allyson Pollock, of Newcastle University, urged the UK’s chief medical officers to take the extreme and I would suggest unwelcome step of removing contact from the school game altogether, on the basis that that banning tackling would significantly reduce head and neck injuries and concussion.

But the wider sport still faces a growing perception problem among some parents about the dangers associated with the sport. And it will take a good deal of time for improvements at school and junior club level to reap significant benefits at the professional end of the sport. 

Meanwhile and surely, the time has come for the various stakeholders to sit round the table and hammer out a solution to ensure that, so far as rugby is concerned (and continuing  the theme of films directed by Neil Jordan), it's not "The End of the Affair".

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Rugby Union: An Injury Crisis?
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