Monday 16 September 2019

Alan Quinlan: 'Breakdown is not to blame for back-rowers finishing early'


Bundee Aki attempts to win the ball from Jonathan Joseph during Ireland’s friendly against England at Twickenham in March. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Bundee Aki attempts to win the ball from Jonathan Joseph during Ireland’s friendly against England at Twickenham in March. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Alan Quinlan

Alan Quinlan

I had never felt pain like it, every cell in my body wanted to scream. The agony was so overwhelming I thought I would never play rugby again.

On the way to the hospital I kept pleading with the medical staff to knock me out and end the torture. Thankfully, they did just that before popping my elbow back into place.

By the time I came to, my right arm was in a sling and Paul O'Connell was towering over me at the end of my University Hospital Galway bed with a late, and most welcome, Christmas present of a burger and chips.

It was December 29, 2010, my last season as a professional, and one of the very few times in my career where I suffered an injury at the breakdown.

Some of the fans were still making their way back to their seats after the interval with their warm, caffeinated drinks on a typical winter's night in Galway when I saw an opportunity to poach a ball.

As I shifted into the jackal position, I took a hit from a Connacht man, and whatever way he made contact, in a freak accident, my elbow collapsed inwards and my body crumpled with the pain.

I was told afterwards that the numerous nerves around the joint are what make an injury like this so unforgettable, the horrific level of pain, for me at least, soaring above the suffering of my cruciate injury or dislocated shoulder of years gone by.

Fortunately, I didn't need an operation on the elbow and I was scavenging for turnovers again just six weeks later.

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I wasn't scarred mentally. I didn't suddenly rethink the safety of the breakdown, it was a freak accident.

And that's the point. As early retirement for back-rowers, particularly opensides, becomes a more regular occurrence, it's very easy for people to insist that the breakdown is the culprit.

While breakdown injuries can occur, it is not an area of the game that needs to be shown the red flag.

The intricacies, technique and skill of timing around poaching the ball may be lost on the casual rugby fan who wants to see open, sevens-style rugby for 80 minutes but to the rest of us, it remains one of the most fascinating areas of the game.

It is also being policed strictly nowadays; players can no longer launch themselves from a distance at an opponent in the jackal position who, naturally, as a stationary target, is vulnerable.

Power is still important to keep the back-row vultures off your ball, but as is often the case in martial arts, superior technique trumps brute force.

Modern back-rowers are so all-action and so powerful that they are bound to pick up knocks, particularly soft-tissue injuries, through the amount of rucks they hit, and the number of tackles and carries they get through.

Seán O'Brien returns for Ireland today after another horror run of injuries; the Argentina Test is just his 14th game for club or country since he helped the Lions secure a drawn series in New Zealand in the summer of 2017.

The Carlow back-rower has been unfortunate to see so many parts of his body let him down over the years but he has still carved out a trophy-laden career that will see him considered as one of our greatest back-rowers of all time when he eventually hangs up his boots.

O'Brien may be a victim of his own power at times. Players like him, who are so dynamic and so explosive, often pick up hip and groin injuries as their bodies simply don't have a restrictor.

Of course O'Brien, at 31, would have more than his 51 Ireland caps had he not been hampered by such persistent injury issues but you can be certain that he isn't feeling sorry for himself.

He has shown remarkable psychological fortitude time and again to keep coming back for more; that's the mentality of a back-rower. It's either in you or it isn't.

There are plenty of examples of back-rowers who have gone on to play in their mid-to-late 30s too; Jerome Kaino (35) looks as powerful as ever at Toulouse, and 38-year-old George Smith has played all six Premiership matches for Bristol this season and just last month signed a contract extension with Pat Lam's side until the end of the campaign.

Toulouse's New Zealand number 8 Jerome Kaino

Smith has been known as a breakdown specialist for almost 20 years and is still an extremely effective operator in one of the world's best leagues.

While he is certainly a rare talent, his longevity is a reminder that being a back-rower doesn't necessarily decrease your professional shelf life.

The breakdown is a forest floor of chaos, an ecosystem that David Attenborough would struggle to find words for. But equally, it is a fascinating concoction of wrestling and chess that can dictate the tone of an entire game.

When you latch on to a ball, your head and shoulders antagonistically sticking out on the opposition's side, you're simply hanging on for the referee's whistle. Little else matters. You rarely even feel the contact that your body naturally braces for.

Most of the injuries that occur at the breakdown happen when a player is unfortunate enough to get their leg trapped under a body, or their studs stuck in the turf, like Paulie did against France in the World Cup three years ago.

From my experience, when it came to safety fears around the breakdown, training was much worse than matches, especially in Ireland camp with a bullish Trevor Brennan launching himself into everything like a man possessed.

Injuries are bound to occur in a game as physical as rugby but it is important to remember that referees are conscious of player safety around ground contests.

The breakdown is a fascinating battleground that, much like the game's players, also needs to be protected.

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