During the course of my playing career there were two fundamental shifts in the way players prepare and train for the game, that I believe have led to an increase in the number of injuries in the game. The first came about after 1995 when rugby was first declared a professional sport. I know and I remember the time well. I was 18 and at the time that I joined Wasps I weighed 12 stone (168 lbs). There were a number of reasons why I weighed so little, the first being how quickly I had grown since I was 13. Another was the fact that I was a cross country runner in the off season, which some people might find amusing.
Wasps picked me up and over the course of the season I learned how to eat properly and train properly, by the end of that season I was weighing in at 16 stone (224 lbs). Now by no means am I saying that what then happened to me was unique, Indeed I can name a number of very talented players who had similar experiences. Between 1995 and 2000 the clubs were ruthless as the sport tried to develop and understand how to build players like Jonah Lomu or better and stronger. It’s not Jonah’s fault at all, but he inspired the game to look at the physical aspects of their players development.
This ruthlessness led many players to have very shortened careers, joint problems and serious injuries as their bodies began to change into a size they hadn’t carried before. On top of that, they were receiving bigger and bigger body blows in the contact area as the game slowly began to become more physical. I know this because of the physical transformation my own body took, my frame wasn’t ready for it and I started suffering from significant joint problems that ended with me not being able to play for three years.
Now take nothing away from the players that won the World Cup, and I do not consider myself one of the ones who missed out, but from the players who washed out of the game through these types of injuries in the early years, there were some seriously talented players who could and probably should have been in the squad.
And then the game changed again, the ELVs (Experimental Law Variations), brought into play at the start of the 2008 -09 season significantly changed what was happening on the field. They required players to be fitter and faster, and have higher levels of stamina. Looking at how players have changed you will notice that today’s players don’t look quite as big as they did 10 years ago, they are leaner and stronger. Importantly the body motion training that players now do as part of the gym activities has made them better athletes.
And here in lies what I see as the interesting part, by keeping players leaner there appears to have been an increase in the amount of knee injuries that are occurring, and other such injuries? Could part of the reason be that players don’t have that same level of muscle mass to protect their joints like before? Surely that has to be something from this that has to be a contributing factor. Admittedly the game has changed and the way players approach the breakdown and the technique they use in the breakdown has changed and both of these will have contributed far more than the physical aspect.
No matter what, rugby over the past 20 years has dramatically transformed the physical training and body development work they do, and whilst the sport has become better at helping players with long term injuries, they do still appear to by on the rise. What will be interesting is to see the next stage of development come through, are we going to get bigger or is there going to be more emphasis on developing joints to withstand the levels of impact the sport brings.
Or maybe just maybe, we might look at the amount of recovery time players have between each game. The push to have more games in a season has lead to players playing far more matches than they did in the past and maybe we just aren’t built to have that much impact on our bodies that often in a 10 month calendar?
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