Friday 22 September 2017

Tackling the cause of Ireland's injury crisis

Ireland’s Jonathan Sexton during squad training at Carton House yesterday
Ireland’s Jonathan Sexton during squad training at Carton House yesterday

IN sporting terms, this is GUBU time. What has happened to Ireland's Six Nations adventure is certainly grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented.

Team manager Mick Kearney referenced the infamous Charlie Haughey quote when he ran through Ireland's mounting injury list. Ireland players have suffered in every one of their Six Nations games this season.

Fergus McFadden and Eoin Reddan are the latest to be ruled out after suffering fractured ribs and a broken leg respectively at the weekend.

It all makes for an astonishing situation. But it is only when compared with the other nations' casualty lists that the true picture becomes clear.

England are starting to suffer, with four players doubtful for their final game against Wales, which will determine the destination of the title and is a potential Grand Slam-winning game for them.

They have also suffered with long-term injuries. No 8 Ben Morgan hasn't played since the opening game but England's list of walking wounded pales in comparison to the losses suffered by Ireland.

Services

Declan Kidney has, since the start of the tournament, lost the services of four of his starting team for the duration. Another three players have missed at least one of their four matches, and there are now doubts about the availability of a further three players for the final game in Rome.

Over the course of the tournament, they also lost another two players to injuries sustained when playing for their clubs, while four were ruled out before the tournament even began.

It's an astonishing rate of attrition.

The high number of injuries suffered by Ireland does not, according to Karl Gilligan, a former Ireland U-19 national team strength and conditioning coach, highlight a weakness in the Irish system for professional rugby.

For Gilligan, what is important is differentiating between contact and non-contact injuries and assessing what can be done to avoid the latter.

"In contact sport you are going to get injured. Force is mass times acceleration. So when, for example, a 17-stone Tuilagi is running at pace and hits a 14-stone Brian O'Driscoll, that's going to be high impact," explained Gilligan. "That's unavoidable in a contact sport.

"But when Jonathan Sexton pulls a hamstring kicking a ball, the question is whether or not that injury was avoidable.

"That comes down to reviewing the structures in place regarding prehabilitation. You screen for possible weaknesses that might make a player susceptible to certain injuries and you put compensations in place to counteract that. It's about identifying those susceptible to non-contact injuries in particular and adjusting accordingly."

Ireland's injury list certainly defies belief. Assistant coach Les Kiss has experience of both rugby league and rugby union in both hemispheres and has never experienced the like at any time over his lengthy playing and coaching careers.

"It's certainly the biggest (injury list) I've been involved with," he said.

Kiss believes that the Irish spirit and indomitable will outmuscles the size disadvantage a 5'9" and 14 stone Brian O'Driscoll gives up to a 6'0" 17-and-half stone French wrecking machine by the name of Bastareaud.

Trenches

"We certainly do have to play big teams but we have to build our game around what our strengths are. We have to go into a game and be able to fight in the trenches, and negate what it is sometimes a size disadvantage," said Kiss.

"And I think we do a fantastic job of it and, across the board from our forwards through our backs, they do not lack in anything I've seen bigger teams have.

"To tell you the truth, I'd rather what we've got here. It's brilliant.

"I just think they deserve a break and I hope they get it this weekend, hope they get the result."

There is merit in the suggestion that the Player Welfare Scheme operated in Ireland isn't as effective as has been assumed. The players from other nations are not 'minded' as much as Ireland's and are hardened up as a result of their being exposed to more rugby.

But there is absolutely no suggestion that the training regimes of the other nations are better than Ireland's.

The situation in Ireland is complicated by the fragmentation of the sports-playing community. Our population of athletes are split between a greater variety of sports disciplines than those in other countries. In particular, Gaelic football and hurling attract the tall and powerful athletes who would fit ideally into international rugby.

The Irish, generally, as a people are not blessed with particularly big frames. The Polynesians, for example, are simply built differently to Europeans. And the Irish are also slighter than our European counterparts.

The average Irish male stands at 5'10" and weighs between 12 and 14 stone. The average English male is six foot and between 13 and 15 stone.

Genetics determines that the Irish will never be able to compete on a level playing field in a physical sense, so the key is to work and improve what we have.

To this end, Gilligan believes that starts with further improving our strength and conditioning and our anaerobic fitness levels, while balancing that with comprehensive pre-hab training to avoid injuries.

"By improving anaerobic fitness levels in tandem with strength and power, you become more robust to injury. The game of rugby is changing all the time. The ball is in play for longer periods, so fitness levels have to be higher in today's game than ever before. It's about finding that right balance," said Gilligan.

Benefits

Cork-based strength and conditioning coach Christina Cronin believes up and coming players have to be educated in the benefits of combining anaerobic fitness training with their desire to build their strength and power.

Cronin, who worked with San Diego State University and also trains GAA and rugby teams, believes that until the younger players realise that improving one doesn't come at the cost of the other, an imbalance will exist.

"The toughest thing is convincing some young rugby players that being anaerobically fit doesn't mean you lose your strength and power. They complement each other," she said.

"Some young players believe that size is all that matters in rugby, but it's not. It's about fine-tuning your own body and harnessing your strength and power and using them in the right ways.

"You can look big and strong but unless it's balanced with the proper levels of anaerobic fitness, it's not going to help."

• Karl Gilligan is a former Ireland U-19 national rugby team strength and conditioning coach and current director of KG elite performance based in Dublin.

• Christina Cronin is a qualified strength and conditioning coach in Cork. She works with schools rugby teams, GAA teams and has also worked with the various collegiate teams at San Diego State University in California.

Irish Independent

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