Alan Quinlan: Change laws and cut season or injury crisis will get worse
Published 22/02/2016 | 02:30
I don't mean to scaremonger here. My intention is not to suggest rugby's future is f***ed.
But I'm worried. The game has become so physical, so demanding that the fear is that careers will shorten and injuries will get worse. I look at Sean O'Brien and see two images.
The first is of the European Player of the Year in 2011, a Heineken Cup winner at 24, a future Lion, certain to be a regular in Ireland teams for years to come.
And then I picture the image of him coming off the field in Paris nine days ago, nursing a hamstring injury which will end his Six Nations, and my mind wanders from Sean O'Brien to Denis Leamy to Stephen Ferris to Cian Healy.
A rugby player is like a cat. He gets nine lives. Have Sean and Cian used up seven or eight of those lives? I hope not. They're fantastic players, fantastic fellas and crucial to Irish rugby's future as well as the present.
Yet the statistics around them are worrying. Since that 2011 coming-of-age season, Sean missed 14 months with shoulder trouble, lost four months of his career to a hip injury, missed the 2013 Pro12 final and the start of the Lions tour with a bruised knee, before getting plagued by hamstring trouble in the last 12 months.
To put all that into context: in 2010/11, he made 21 starts for Leinster. In the last four seasons - including this one - he has started just 27 games for the province. He got just 20 minutes of this Six Nations, just two games of last year's competition and none at all in 2014.
Healy, meanwhile, has also had his issues. He has only started five games for Leinster this season - the same number of starts he got for them last year. At least he's still playing. Ferris isn't, even though he is still just 30. Can you believe someone as talented as him only won 35 caps for Ireland?
Injuries prematurely ended his career just as they did Leamy's - and I have no doubt that in another era, it wouldn't have been like this. Explosive players like O'Brien, Leamy, Ferris and Healy would have found life easier.
In the old days, the game wasn't so defensively-structured, gaps were plentiful, defenders didn't possess as effective a tackle technique as they do now. Nor did every team have a defence coach. Systems weren't in place to deal with players like O'Brien or Healy. Those guys simply ran amok.
Now, sheer talent ensures they continue to make an impact but because every team is so much more prepared in terms of their structures than 10 or 20 years ago, you don't get the same amount of space on the pitch. And you get a greater number of collisions.
Does this fully explain why O'Brien and Healy have spent so much time on the sidelines? Who can say? This is a contact sport. Injuries are part and parcel of it.
And I remember my own career: dislocated elbow, dislocated shoulder, reconstructed knee, four breaks of my thumb, constant ankle trouble, continual muscle strains, broken fingers. It comes with the territory.
At times like this, you wonder what goes through their mind.
And then I remember what went through mine.
I lie outstretched on a makeshift physio's table and stare at the ceiling. I'm 31 years old and am playing the victim. Why always me? I look down at my knee and know it is crocked.
That's when this internal conversation begins. 'Will I ever play again?' Even if I do, can I get my head around what's coming next, the wait that seems to go on forever until you get your date for an operation, the knowledge your body is wasting away while all around you, team-mates are getting fitter and happier, pushing themselves to the brink while all you can do is sit and watch.
You can't train. You can't play. You are told you have the best job in the world yet at these moments, you aren't able to go to work. All your life you have lived for rugby, to be the best you can be, to play for Munster, to represent your country.
And it's gone. You don't see a brighter day up ahead. All you see is the paintwork of this ceiling in this stadium where your knee has been destroyed. That internal voice asks 'is this worth it?' And you wonder if it is.
Is this the way Sean O'Brien will be thinking this morning? I don't know but I have an idea. The start of his career coincided with the end of mine. I liked him. Aside from his physical attributes, he had serious mental strength.
This morning, though, he is bound to be wondering why it is always him? Why has his hamstring gone this time? Why is he missing another Six Nations tournament? When will he ever get a clean break and be injury-free?
Ireland need him. He's clearly one of our best players.
But it isn't just Ireland. Rugby needs him too. Players like him bring in the crowds. What if this is the norm now - that the explosive player only averages 10 or so games per season? Will this keep the crowds coming back?
So deep down you feel something has to change. You are conscious of sounding like a scientist talking about the threat of global warming. But in a rugby context, this is where we are at.
We need to be conscious of all these injuries and we need to figure out a way of reducing them.
If that means tinkering with the laws of the game so that more space opens up on the pitch, so that teams can't slow the game down at ruck-time, then so be it.
Shortening the season appeals. Turning rugby into a global season makes sense to me, too. Run it from February/March to November in tandem with the southern hemisphere. If that means fewer games, then that's fine by me because fewer games could mean fewer injuries.
Right now this is a major issue for Ireland. Look at the injury list since the World Cup: Healy, Ross, Henderson, Tuohy, O'Brien, O'Mahony, McCarthy, Sexton, Earls, Kearney, Fitzgerald, Bowe and Zebo have all been hurt at various stages. And you'd hope people would look at that and put a bit of perspective on what has gone wrong.
But international rugby is a results business and Joe Schmidt is paid to find answers rather than excuses. So he'll have spent the last nine days figuring out what has gone wrong and then figuring out a way of fixing it ahead of Saturday's trip to Twickenham.
Deep down, he won't be overly concerned because he'll have gone back over what happened in Paris and will know that just a few things need to be tweaked, not just in terms of personnel, but also in terms of how Ireland play.
Physically, these men are brave. But moral courage is a different thing and you get the sense these guys are afraid to make a mistake. That can be rectified. Tactical issues can be fixed.
Can rugby's issues with injuries be so easily corrected, though? I live more in hope than expectation.