Modern game taking increasingly heavy toll on top Irish players

Ireland line out against Wales for the RBS Six Nations 2012 match at the Aviva Stadium. photograph: Alan Betson

Ireland line out against Wales for the RBS Six Nations 2012 match at the Aviva Stadium. photograph: Alan Betson

Fri, Feb 1, 2013, 00:00

As they push their bodies to breaking point, it’s inevitable injuries will be a common theme for this generation of elite Irish rugby players

You don’t have to wonder why Rob Kearney and Luke Fitzgerald wrangled over contracts or why Jonny Sexton is on his way to play in France. It’s not difficult to understand why Brian O’Driscoll turned up in South West France to present trophies for rugby as his contractual negotiations with the IRFU were approaching and was recently linked with a move to Australia.

Leverage is one thing players’ agents try to get on their side but few believed any of the players would leave until the Sexton saga came to a surprising conclusion. Up to now Irish players have been mindful of playing fewer games in Ireland, understanding that their most precious commodity is their body.

Although Sexton has largely escaped an extended sideline experience, the other three players have suffered injuries that have probably allowed them believe they made the right choice in staying in Ireland. Whatever thoughts they may have about the IRFU, their employers do try to manage the players in a game that is becoming increasingly attritional.

Condition coach Mike McGurn has crossed swords with Stephen Ferris in recent weeks. Ferris didn’t like McGurn’s view on his injuries although the flanker pointedly didn’t claim McGurn was incorrect in his analysis.

McGurn graduated with a BSc(Hons) in Sports Science from the US after receiving a scholarship for athletics.

In 2000-01 he won the Super League with Rugby League club St. Helens and in 2002 worked with the IRFU as the strength and conditioning coach until 2008, when he moved to Ospreys. In 2009, he was appointed Director of High Performance with Armagh GAA.

Last year in Ireland’s first match against Wales in the 2012 Championship Kearney, Bowe, Rory Best, Ferris, Paul O’Connell and Sean O’Brien all lined out. Brian O’Driscoll did not because he was injured, nor did Luke Fitzgerald for the same reason. The six who played in Ireland’s first match were all subsequently injured and took varying periods of time out of the game.

O’Connell (knee and back) is still sidelined along with Ferris (knee and ankle and Bowe (Haematoma, knee). O’Driscoll (shoulder and ankle), Kearney (back), Fitzgerald (neck), O’Brien (hip) and Best (neck) are just recently back playing, Fitzgerald not having featured for over a year. It has not been a good 12 months for Irish players and injury.

“I think two things,” says McGurn. “Conditioners do look at injury profiles. Even though they are not qualified medics they work very closely with them. I would concur that a lot of the injuries have been because of stuff players have been doing in the gym. What that does is make everyone more powerful, so that the impact collisions are higher.

“If we were to measure the impact in a game of rugby on a GPS (Global Positioning System) we would be looking at around 13 to 14 Gs of force. I came from professional Rugby League to Rugby Union in 2002, when Rugby Union was in its infancy. The level of conditioning compared to the players in union was frightening. It was chalk and cheese.

“The players in Union weren’t as well developed. The collisions and the contacts weren’t as big. Not only have they caught up but have probably surpassed Rugby League. The body isn’t designed for collisions like that on a regular basis no matter how much training, how much recovery time you have.

“I have always felt in Ireland we don’t have the natural bulk that our southern counterparts have like the Samoans or the Kiwis. We actually play at what I would call an inflated weight, a couple of kilograms above what we should be. That’s tough on the body.”

In boxing, only one of Ireland’s 16 Olympic medals since the foundation of the Irish State has been won above the middleweight division of 75kg. Kenny Egan’s Light heavyweight silver in the 81kg class in Beijing is the lone success, Darren Sutherland the only middleweight. All of the other 14 medals have been won in the lower divisions of welter, light, bantam, flyweight and double medallist Paddy Barnes at light flyweight, or, 49 kg.

Rugby isn’t boxing but the most successful Olympic sport, the sport that continually evolves to meet the challenge of what the rest of the world will throw at it, cannot get a heavyweight onto an Olympic podium.

It may be a leap of logic to conclude that the physical make-up of Irish athletes is a constraining factor compared to other countries but McGurn believes Irish rugby also struggles to conveyor-belt heavyweight players. In a sense rugby players are often middleweights forced up to heavyweight and the gym is the only place where they can bridge that gap, when the genes don’t deliver.

“It’s a gene pool I think,” says McGurn. “I mean Johnny O’Connor, a fierce competitor, always tried to play at around 97kg. He’s really somebody who is around 87kg playing 10kg above.

“His weight is from hard gym sessions and eating a load of calories. It’s hard for the body to maintain that, stay physically strong and not get injured.

“It’s okay making the muscle stronger but the ligaments and tendons that attach the muscle to the bone – they don’t develop at the same rate. That’s where we get a lot of our problems. Because they fail before the muscles do.”

“I would imagine the collisions are now around 13-14½ Gs. That is big. That is equivalent to being in a car crash. You do that maybe 15 or 20 times a game. That’s a lot of car crashes.

“I think that is part of Stevie’s problem, Stevie Ferris. He’s a great lad, salt of the earth but he plays a very confrontational type of game. He looks for contact rather than avoid it. He’s putting a lot of G-Force through his body.

“He is incredibly powerful, probably one of the most powerful players in the world and I feel that unless he changes his style of play and looks for spaces instead of faces, he’s going to have a short career. He gained a lot of his strength growing up. He would have got away with that on the rugby pitch as he was. But then he topped that up in the gym.

“We had him in 2005 in Japan on the Development Tour. He was power cleaning around 120kg to 140kg. In fact he was cleaning that much that we had to get more weights into the gym in Japan – a 20-year-old.

“I think Stevie’s problem is that his tendons are failing him. His current injury is a mixture of his knee and his ankle ligaments. The muscle is producing so much force and it’s pulling on the tendon ligaments and that’s pulling on the bone then something is going to give. The tendons and ligaments, they do get strong but at a slower rate than the muscle.”

In Jason Cowman, head of the Irish conditioning, Ireland has a respected expert in place and in Ulster Johnny Davidson is also highly regarded. They advise the coaches in the rotation of players, which is crucial to longevity, something the French and English clubs cannot do to the same extent.

Every player on the roster is monitored but the last 12 months have shown that injury continues to be a serious matter for players at the top. McGurn’s view, and he admits to being no coach, is to play smarter against the bigger sides, see virtue in other areas.

“We are fortunate the conditioning staff are very, very clued in,” he says. “They can say to the coaches ‘at this point of the training sessions player X and player Y have got to stop because they have hit the ceiling’. They have said ‘how can we coach smarter’ and said ‘okay lets use GPS to prescribe individually.’

“They might say, lets say O’Driscoll: if he covers 4000m on Tuesday that’s enough. The session is over no matter what. Leo Cullen 500m, maybe the same. Johnny might be saying up in Ulster when Ruan Pienaar hits 5000m he’s finished that’s enough for him. It’s the detail they have to go into to keep the players on the pitch. It’s scientific rather than a one-size-fits-all.”

The opinion of Ferris is, ironically, that people like McGurn shouldn’t hold opinions, that his knee and ankle injuries were innocuous and that he is now at his strongest ever and looking at a return shortly. But that’s the point the conditioner is making. The magnificent power and courage of Ferris and players like him such as O’Driscoll, may be their undoing. O’Driscoll, the world class back who now rucks and rips ball like a forward, is often wonderful to watch but he too has been cursed with injury.

“A match against the Springboks, they are going to smash us,” says McGurn.

“I’m no coach and don’t want to be but come up with a game plan that suits the gene pool. Unfortunately we’re a smaller nation and that’s what we are.”

Injury List

Brian O’Driscoll (shoulder and ankle) Neck/Shoulder operation (six months) followed by ankle surgery (two months). Knee cartilage trimmed in between. Playing.

Stephen Ferris (knee, ankle). Hobbled off in early November with ankle ligament damage in his first game for a month. Still out.

Paul O’Connell (knee and back). Knee injury (five months) followed by operation on disc. Played just twice this season. Still out.

Sean O’Brien (hip). Hip cartilage operation (with Dave Kearney and Rhys Ruddock). Four months out. Playing.

Rob Kearney (back). Ongoing back problem. Three months out after surgery on disc. Playing

Rory Best (neck). Sprained neck ligaments. Two months out. Playing.

Tommy Bowe (Haematoma, knee). Right knee, lateral ligament. Four months out. Still out.

Luke Fitzgerald (neck). Surgery last spring on back. Seven months out. Playing.