Lack of bulk could be the reason behind Ireland’s chronic injury crisis
This number of players missing can’t all be down to freakish bad luck
Luke Marshall lies injured in Rome. Photograph: Inpho/James Crombie
Keith Earls’ injury is one that might have been avoided if he had a few more kilos of muscle on him. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Ireland's Paddy Jackson tackles France’s Thomas Domingo during the Six Nations match at the Aviva. Photograph: Reuters/Cathal McNaughton
Injuries happen all the time. You just don’t expect them to happen to all your players. Or nearly all of them as was the case with Ireland in this Six Nations. Every time you get a raft of serious injuries, there has to be a certain element of bad luck involved.
The Irish players haven’t been missing because of hamstring pulls (with the exception of Johnny Sexton’s first one) or calf pulls, the kind of soft-muscle injuries than can be a sign of fatigue or overload. They’ve been missing because of broken bones, dislocations, ripped tendons and so on. When you look at that, your first instinct is that these are all freakish injuries and for them all to happen at the same time is terrible luck.
Sometimes that luck goes with you, sometimes it goes against you. I remember during the 2009 Grand Slam campaign, we knew very well we were riding our luck with regard to injuries. We knew other teams were missing players and three or four lads being out at any one time would usually be par for the course. Yet we were okay, bumps and bruises aside. Compare that with this campaign and you’re talking a totally different environment.
I was talking to Donegal footballer Karl Lacey earlier in the week and I asked him could he imagine them having a shot at winning the All-Ireland last year if they had undergone the amount of frontline injuries that Ireland have. If, say, they went into August with eight players missing, could they have won the All-Ireland? “No chance,” he said.
It’s not just the fact they’re not playing, it’s the knock-on effect of it all. It’s the weakening of the bench, it’s the harm it does to belief, resilience and confidence. As a player, you will always try to put a positive spin on your situation and you will convince yourself that the guys coming in are every bit as good and that they’ll be able to step up and do a job. But it’s pointless pretending that the frontline guys aren’t missed.
What might be missed most of all is their presence. When it’s senior guys that are out injured, they tend to be the ones who lead the team, who turn the tide when the opposition is having a purple patch, who take it upon themselves to make the big tackle or turnover or carry. Injury doesn’t just take those lads out of the team, it removes them from the squad and leaves it to the generation coming behind them to take up the slack.
Craig Gilroy, Luke Marshall and Paddy Jackson are going to be big players for Ireland but with the greatest of respect, they were in the team because Tommy Bowe, Gordon D’Arcy and Johnny Sexton were out injured. That not only puts a lot of pressure on them, it also means they have to cope with that pressure without the presence of more experienced players to help them through it. They’re good players but they’re not ready for that environment all at once.
Inexperienced players can find it hard to be the ones who drive training, who set standards, who go out to every session and every game with the right body language. When you have the likes of Paul O’Connell and Stephen Ferris around the place, the young players don’t have to force it. They can be their own men and grow into their roles. But when all those years of experience and leadership are removed not just from the team but from the squad as well, it’s a really tough ask for everybody to know the right thing to do at the right time.
I think this is a big part of why the decision-making has been poor throughout the tournament for Ireland. I know Jamie Heaslip has taken a lot of flak for it but I think even Brian O’Driscoll might have struggled to get every call right. You saw down the years how he would run things past O’Connell or Ronan O’Gara or Ferris or D’Arcy – Heaslip had none of those guys to turn to. We can all see the effect it had.
When your campaign has been so broken up by injuries like that, everybody has to take a step back and try to find out the reason why. As I said, your first instinct is that it was a freakish occurrence and just really bad luck.
And maybe it was – I’m not a medical professional and I wouldn’t claim to have any more insight than just somebody has played the game. I certainly wouldn’t have the insight that the strength and conditioning fellas have who work with the Ireland team.
But I have a theory and it has to do with the size of our players these days. It looks to me that they’re not carrying enough muscle mass to compete with the bigger teams around the world. Just looking in from the outside, I would love to see the Ireland players across the board loading on an extra two or three kilograms of muscle. It wouldn’t prevent every injury obviously but it might change the way we play a little and offer a bit more protection to our bodies.
In the early 2000s, the big emphasis in strength and conditioning for the international players was on putting on more bulk. We were clearly lagging behind the teams that were beating us regularly and it was stressed to us that we needed to get bigger physically.
In 2003 and 2004, I remember our pre-season lasting a full nine weeks and there was a huge emphasis on weights for at least six or seven of those weeks. Very often, you wouldn’t see a rugby ball until about a fortnight before the end. It was all about building ourselves up in the gym.
That has definitely changed in recent years. The emphasis on the laws at the breakdown changed, speeding up the game. Previously, it was easier to turnover possession in a tackle or get the penalty because you were allowed to stay in contact. But once you had to show a clear release after the tackle before trying to get your hands on the ball, there were a lot fewer clear-cut turnovers in the game. That meant that the ball came back quicker and teams were able to move through the phases quicker as a result.
The upshot of that change meant it was more important that players worked on their fitness and skills rather than putting on bulk. In 2009 and 2010 at Munster, we did a huge amount of fitness work rather than weights work. We steered away from adding power to the extent we had been. Those days of not seeing a rugby ball until seven weeks into pre-season were long gone and by now we were doing ball work in the third week.
There was a definite shift in emphasis. You still did your power work but you weren’t trying to load as much muscle onto your body as you had been before. The idea was to be strong but not chunky. It was designed so that you wouldn’t have the burden of carrying the extra two or three kilos neat the end of the match when fitness levels could make the difference. The game had changed so the players had to change with it.
Not the biggest
Now obviously that went for every country the same as it went for Ireland. But in relative terms, we are not the biggest race of people in the world and I definitely think Irish players suffer a little if they aren’t carrying that kilo or two of extra muscle. Some of the other international sides are just naturally bigger.
Look at the backlines of the other Six Nations teams – with the possible exception of Scotland, all the other sides have bigger backlines than us. I’ve always thought we need that bit of extra bulk.
I don’t know if this has been a factor in the spate of injuries but it should be examined when they sit down to work out if there’s more to them than just bad luck.
The IRFU’s game management programme has protected the players from having to play too many games so we have to look elsewhere for a possible reason. I just think that if the players had an extra few kilos of muscle mass, they would be able to protect themselves a bit better.
What I’m talking about here is the top level, the international players. I wouldn’t like to see young players thinking they have to put on loads of muscle as teenagers before their body is ready for it. But definitely at the professional level, I think we have suffered in this Six Nations because of a lack of size.
It might not be the main reason for all the injuries. They might all just be freak injuries, fellas getting caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. But at international level, you can’t be putting everything down to bad luck. You have to try and find out if there’s more to it than that.