Monday 19 August 2019

Alan Quinlan: 'Back-rows bearing brunt and must be listened to'


Leinster's Dan Leavy. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Leinster's Dan Leavy. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Alan Quinlan

Alan Quinlan

The injuries cause pain and the losses can really hurt but, for me, the most difficult aspect of being a professional rugby player was preparing to go under the knife following an on-field injury.

Lying on a hospital bed, wondering why you departed the game on a stretcher while everyone else left the field unscathed can rattle even those who previously displayed nothing other than rock-solid mental fortitude.

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I used to ask myself, 'Why always me?' long before the audacious Mario Balotelli made the phrase his own.

It's a question Dan Leavy will have been asking himself for the past seven days too as he prepares to navigate a daunting comeback trail.

I was pleased to hear Luke McGrath say during the week that Leavy was watching his beloved Liverpool surrounded by friends last Sunday, and even managed a smile when they bagged a late winner against Spurs. You need people around you in difficult times like those; it helps you to deal with the sudden sense of loss that a long-term injury forces upon you.

It is only natural for support to flood in in the immediate aftermath of horrific injuries like that, and equally for it to tail off as you get through surgery and begin your rehabilitation.

Leavy will face some really tough days ahead, mentally more so than anything, particularly when the shorter autumn nights descend in Ireland while his international team-mates look to reach uncharted territory in the Land of the Rising Sun.

The tide can turn so quickly on you in this game. Just 10 months ago Leavy was being hailed as one of the best No 7s in the world after starring in a stunning clean sweep for club and country.

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Since the St Patrick's Day Grand Slam success in Twickenham 13 months ago, he has played just 83 minutes of international rugby and that figure is unlikely to change, going by his early prognosis, at least until the 2020 Six Nations.

Injuries are inevitable in sport, particularly in rugby's contact-heavy contests, but the long-term rewards of playing a game that you love, sharing such memorable experiences with some of your closest friends, is generally worth the occasional strife that comes with being forced to watch from afar.

With just three regulation PRO14 rounds remaining this season, knockout rugby - in name or otherwise - will soon be coming thick and fast for all four Irish provinces, bringing with it a new set of challenges.

Rugby at this time of year creates different pressures that can muddy the waters around player welfare, which is something everyone in the game needs to be aware of.

The sport has made great strides in recent years in terms of HIA protocols and adjustments to the tackle height, while the player management system in Ireland has rightly been praised for giving its most valuable assets a protected status.

Yet for all the progress being made, there are elements of the game that are still ringing alarm bells.

Towards the end of last year a survey was conducted among more than 350 international rugby players, all from World Cup-qualified nations, and the stand-out discovery was that 45pc of those questioned admitted they had been put under pressure to train or play when not fully fit.

That is a scenario that needs to be dumped in the past with four-point tries, tackles above shoulder height, and dubious one-handed lineout throws.

The days of rugby players taking to the field with limp joints being held together with tape - or relying on injections or painkillers to get through - can exist no longer.

Considering how much the sport has changed since I retired eight years ago, I do think that vast improvements have already been made in that regard.

The nature of rugby in 2019, where possession really is nine-tenths of the law, sees the ball stay in play for longer. The emphasis on recycling and building phases means there is a demand for more rucks to be hit, there are more poaching opportunities, and more straight-up carries required.

The workload is spread across the team to some extent, but the back-rowers, in particular, have never been busier, and consequently that is undoubtedly linked to the prevalence of injuries among flankers and No 8s - Leavy, Josh van der Flier, Rhys Ruddock, Seán O'Brien, Tommy O'Donnell and Jack O'Donoghue being recent cases in point.

You will never be able to eliminate injuries from rugby but it is possible to offer the players even greater protection without diluting the gripping spectacles that the game regularly delivers.

Rugby is one of the most difficult sports in the world to referee - I don't think many would argue with that - but the officiating around the breakdown needs to be stricter.

I don't have all the answers as to how you go about that, whether another referee is required for example, but the conversation needs to be had.

Leavy suffered his complex knee injury when being cleared out by an opponent who was off his feet and had joined the ruck from the side.

Van der Flier is working his way back to fitness from groin surgery that was required following a similar illegal clearout attempt by a French opponent.

The vulnerability of the jackal position is something that O'Brien and the retired former Wales and Lions captain Sam Warburton have addressed in recent times.

According to the men on the ground, the whole area needs to be policed better and more consistently.

And when players of such high esteem speak out, it's important for the powers that be to show they are listening.

In the wake of some snappy reaction to the World League proposals, the game's decision-makers must keep the players on side.

And as talk of lucrative commercial deals and new formats for international rugby dominates discussion, we cannot forget that player welfare must always remain front and centre.

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