Players are suffering hip horrors due to excessive focus on strength work, writes Neil Francis
As I peered through the muddied windows of the Old Belvedere weights rooms, a flicker of excitement hit. The assemblage that only De Sade could have concocted had no-one using it -- the place was empty. It was 6 o'clock and I needed a witness to say that I had indeed turned up. There would be a phone call later that day from coach Bruce Deans.
The Kiwi had insisted that the team needed to do weights in the off-season to garner a competitive edge. Franner insisted that he needed to be lighter and quicker rather than bigger and stronger. Aged 32, I was as big and strong as I needed to be and, if you want the truth, I wasn't arsed. If you wanted to play you had to train, the injuns come with the territory. Training okay; weights, no!
I had agreed for the sake of squad unity that I would do three sessions a week. 'If Frano isn't doing them why should we'? The call came, where was I? I had sworn affidavits to say that I was there and we drew a line under it, neither believing the other. OK, see you Wednesday and we'll have breakfast at 8 o'clock. "Why would I want to eat breakfast at dinnertime Brucie?"
I'd consider getting out of bed at 5.0am to collect a Euro Millions Super Jackpot -- getting up at that hour at the end of my career for weight training in the club? Nein!
I used to call it the twang room because every time I went in something would go twang. I would get bored or get injured and usually when I got bored I got injured. My advice for people who ask for advice for themselves or their sons: stay out of the weights room.
At the 2007 Rugby World Cup, I came across some of the strength stats that the squad were doing at the time. At the 1995 Rugby World Cup, the best single rep max from our group for a full squat was 150kgs (it wasn't me). Twelve years later, there were four members of the squad who could squat circa 240kgs. Simple mathematics tells you that in that space of time, the majority of the squad were over one and a half times as strong as their 1995 predecessors. That is a startling departure. The four players mentioned were Paul O'Connell, Stephen Ferris, Denis Leamy and John Hayes -- all of them phenomenally powerful athletes and obviously prodigious in the weights room.
Maybe it's a coincidence but the first three named have all had injury-blighted careers with Leamy regretfully having to conclude his prematurely. Hayes, the farmer, a man so naturally strong he would have thrived in a weights room, was rarely injured and was one of Munster and Ireland's most consistent performers; maybe just a coincidence.
Any professional player reading these sentiments would draw the conclusion that I am out of touch and that a weights programme is an absolute necessity to be able to compete. I cannot but agree, but caveats exist. Last Wednesday, Declan Kidney announced his squad for the Guinness series of internationals. Missing from that squad were the names of Seán O'Brien, David Kearney and Rhys Ruddock, who would assuredly have been selected if fit.
Strange to relate that they all have hip injuries. Currently there are five hip injuries on the extended Leinster squad. You normally don't hear of hip injuries until you get to your 50s or 60s. How come 20-year-olds are picking up this type of injury, one that just does not come up on the radar? All of these players have suffered a labral tear, which is damage to the ring of soft elastic tissue that follows the outside rim of the socket of your hip joint.
To get an idea of how potentially serious the condition is, it is important to remember that both Denis Leamy (degenerative) and Ian Dowling (traumatic) had their careers cut short by this type of injury. Cruelly, Leamy was in such pain that painkillers no longer had any effect.
Rugby as a collision sport leaves you open to a traumatic hip labral tear where hip adduction/flexion or extreme manoeuvres in or out of contact can cause an acute injury. That's part of the game; you can break a leg or sever your ACL in contact.
It is, however, the degenerative or chronic injury that interests me. The degeneration of the labrum as a result of repetitive strain and use has become a regular and unwelcome feature in a number of sporting pursuits.
Take, for instance, ice hockey. In Canada, where they start them off as young as four, 30 per cent of 14-16-year-olds have already developed arthritis in their hip at that stage of their lives. You can be sure that of the seven Irish players mentioned earlier all will have a visit from this most painful affliction. Leamy already knows all about it.
So if the hip injury is not a traumatic occurrence, where do all the players pick up the chronic or degenerative type of the injury? One guess only, Sherlock. Studies don't show conclusively but the weights room is the prime suspect. With deep squatting in particular, and with the weight at scarcely believable levels on the barbell, the pressure on hips and lower back is just plain unhealthy.
Leinster have taken steps, but only after recognising that there is a problem. Every new member of the
academy has an MRI done of his hips to check that players' hip alignment and also to see if he is genetically pre-disposed to problems if he does start to lift heavy weights -- really heavy weights -- so techniques can be adjusted or programmes altered.
Twenty years ago, the concept of a complete shoulder or knee reconstruction was a brand new and radical operation but now nobody blinks an eyelid. Hip arthroscopy is in its infancy, techniques are being refined and quite often a scope can save you complications later on in life but I just have a bad feeling that the last couple of generations of schoolboy players and the current crop will suffer badly from the latest affliction to the power game.
The number of schoolboys from aged 14 upwards who do weights is staggering. Most adolescents do not become skeletally mature until they are 18 or 19. Doing weights, particularly heavy weights, affects the growth plate area, the epiphysis which is the growing area of the bone.
Osgood-Schlatter disease (look it up) is rampant in rugby schoolboys, a lot of it complicated by doing weights during growth spurts. The same children will, if they get further down the line, come across more severe consequences from lifting heavy weights into adulthood as the barbell gets heavier and heavier. The way the game has gone hip injuries will be the new injury with newer fixes and cures and complications. In the rush to acquire breeze-block physiques, it has become hip to be square.
"Stay out of the gym son."