Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Player bulk represents a big problem

Man down ... again. The news that Danny Cipriani will miss England's autumn internationals is the latest in a series of injurious blows to team manager, Martin Johnson. Cipriani, albeit he was well down Johnson's pecking order, joins the likes of Riki Flutey, Toby Flood, Delon Armitage, Jordan Turner-Hall and his Wasps colleague Tom Rees on the sidelines ahead of what is shaping up to be yet another testing November for England.

The only remarkable aspect of the build-up for England's first Test against Australia is the absence of Jonny Wilkinson's name from the list of casualties. Rugby's bionic man, so oft-operated on has Wilkinson been in recent years, is thriving across the Channel with Toulon - but the painful legacy of professionalism in rugby union continues to claim less high-profile victims.

Those who play are usually big enough and ugly enough to accept that it is a contact sport to its battered and bruised bones, and that injuries are an inevitable part of the game. But have we gone too far down a reckless road? Cipriani's injury, described by his club as a "contusion" - a bruise to you and me - resulted in a hairline fracture of his fibula. That's some bruise. This comes just 18 months after the horrific fracture-dislocation of his right ankle; and the lad's still only 21.

The 21st-century professional rugby player is an imposing physical specimen - as the Powerade promo shots in this gallery demonstrate. Players are bigger and more muscular, and the gaps between them on the pitch have got that little bit smaller. This has led to more tackles and less tries, increased collisions and, essentially, more man sandwichs. And the guys who get munched may find their bruise has become a break, their shoulder strain a dislocation, their winding a lacerated kidney ...

With South Africa, the world's No1 team, utilising a pragmatic, power-based gameplan focused on kicking points at every opportunity (a blueprint first perfected by Clive Woodward's England), the spectacles of scrambled line-breaks, successful sidesteps and dazzling dashes for the whitewash have become scarcer - something most fans bemoan. But it could be worse: we're not the guys getting crunched week-in, week-out, after all.

Now this may seem like ambulance chasing after a spate of injuries in the England camp, and it is certainly difficult to come up with current figures on injury rates. However, a BBC study in 2005 - 10 years after rugby union became a professional sport - pointed to the huge rise in players being sent to the treatment room over the course of a season. I'm guessing that the graph has at best plateaued since then ... though with young players now coming through already chiselled into huge slabs of men (think James Haskell or Tendai 'Beast' Mtawarira), it could well have got worse.

What to do, though? Reduce the number of games?Allow players to wear more protective armour? Change the rules? Maybe the ELVs, aimed at producing more expansive rugby but effective only at increasing the amount of kicking and inconsistent refereeing, should have been designed with a different goal in mind.

The talk over the last month or so has centred on the Harlequins fake injury scandal (known predictably, and depressingly, as 'Bloodgate') but it is real casualties - such as the ones that plagued the Lions' summer trip to South Africa, and which have depleted England's resources for their autumn programme - that should vex the administrators in the long run. Whatever the solutions, the issue of player welfare is only likely to become more pertinent.

As an aside, this piece in the New Yorker by Malcolm Gladwell, looks at the different but not unrelated problem of head injuries in NFL linebackers. Sobering, however you prefer your ball games ...

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