Monday 16 July 2018

Avoiding casualties crucial as battle begins on new front

Coaches are dealing with increased levels of injuries as European campaign kicks off

At last week’s launch of the European Rugby Champions Cup and Challenge
Cup for PRO14 clubs at the Convention Centre in Dublin, from left, Ken Owens
of Scarlets, Ashley Back of Ospreys, Rory Best of Ulster, Peter O’Mahony of
Munster, Stuart Hogg of Glasgow Warriors, John Muldoon of Connacht, Isa
Nacewa of Leinster and Dean Budd of Benetton. Photo: Brendan Moran
At last week’s launch of the European Rugby Champions Cup and Challenge Cup for PRO14 clubs at the Convention Centre in Dublin, from left, Ken Owens of Scarlets, Ashley Back of Ospreys, Rory Best of Ulster, Peter O’Mahony of Munster, Stuart Hogg of Glasgow Warriors, John Muldoon of Connacht, Isa Nacewa of Leinster and Dean Budd of Benetton. Photo: Brendan Moran
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

At this time of year it's standard practice for coaches across the board to talk about the step up their players have to make in order to cope with Europe.

In the week leading to the first round they notice the edginess in the squad from the Monday. It's the same every time the Champions Cup picks up where the domestic or cross-border leagues leave off. Greater demands require higher standards, and everyone loves it. So bring it on.

The consensus it that what used to be the Heineken Cup arrives at just the right time. It's early October, fans have woken up and tuned in to the new season, and here comes the first big pay day.

That is not the case this time. Across the water, the coaches in the Premiership are falling over themselves pointing out that their players are falling over. Wasps and Harlequins are struggling to get enough players for meaningful sessions because their players are so banged up. Bath and Gloucester are also in an awkward numbers game.

Dai Young, Wasps director of rugby, reckons there are an extra 50 collisions per match compared to last season. He had only 24 players to pick from for last weekend's game against Bath. He ascribes the increase to some of the new law variations in play this season.

We got a pack of six to trial, starting in August. The ones that have had an immediate impact are at the ruck. What is clear is that coaches are warning their defenders to steer clear of this scrap altogether unless they are 100 per cent sure of winning the ball legally. In rugby there are not a lot of these opportunities anymore.

Two of the law variations are generating this momentum: 1) now tacklers have to go back through the gate before they can challenge for the ball on the ground; 2) players can't toe-poke the ball out and mess up the opposing scrumhalf.

The water is muddied further by the fact that - after the Italians brought a bit of puke rugby to Twickenham last season - we have another change. Now, to create an offside line, all you need is a man latching/stepping over a tackled player. To add to the confusion, Wayne Barnes and Alain Rolland are clearly singing off different hymn sheets in their videos on this subject - which you can check out on YouTube.

The aggregate is to warn defenders away from the area altogether. And where do they go? Straight into the defensive line, where their instructions are to make dominant tackles, double-teaming if possible.

"Our defensive strategy is two-man hits," Bernard Jackman says. "You can do that and so it's a good way of stopping the ball-carrier. Players are not going to get less athletic. Coaches adapt strategy based on the laws and I think if they allowed the defending team more of a chance to win turnover ball, coaches would risk sending more players into the breakdown. That would lessen the number of players in the defensive line and hopefully create more space.

"The fact that the offside line can be formed now before the defender even gets there is a big influence on how we approach it. It's split-second stuff, so instead of trying to work out if the ruck is formed or not just play safe, and stay away."

If it's inarguable that these law trials have influenced a quick change in how the game is being played, it's harder to be clear on the other stuff: the effect on the number of collisions and injuries.

Every team have their analysts churning out data on every conceivable aspect of the game so when Dai Young says there are 50 extra collisions per game you know at least he would have access to the raw data. But because we are only in the first week of October he's not going to get the traction he wants.

"It's too early to draw any conclusions but initial data across a range of competitions does not point to any general spike in ball-in-play, rucks or tackles," a spokesman for World Rugby told us last week.

"We know that injury-rates fluctuate and that they that can be caused by a variety of factors, and therefore five weeks of one tournament is far too few matches to arrive at any reliable conclusions. This is especially true when trying to find possible explanations for injury trends, because so many factors are involved. We must wait for the complete season in order to compare like-for-like data, examining first the type of injuries and when they occur, and only then try to offer explanations for any observed changes."

If you were a betting man you'd say Young is on the money. But equally you might want to throw down a few bob on a decrease in hamstring or shoulder injuries sustained by poachers who are horribly exposed in doing their job. Either way, the toll is massive. Leo Cullen spoke last week about budgeting for 25 per cent of your squad being injured at any given time. Given the course of events across the water some of his counterparts might think that's a conservative estimate.

So far, however, Munster have not suffered unduly, and most of their injury victims are carry-overs from last season before the new trials were brought in. But they are acutely conscious of trying to get into the knock-out stages of the competition in decent shape.

"If I had last year over I'd probably have rotated them more and made sure that when we get to that business end we haven't got some guys with 2,000 minutes on their (game clock) and some guys with 600," Rassie Erasmus says.

"You'd like guys with 1,300 or 1,400. That's a very simple way of saying it but managing your squad better, if you have the squad to manage them better, or taking more chances with young guys, because you get a bit punch drunk when you get to those quarter-finals and semi-finals and finals of Pro14 and (Europe). So that's one lesson I've learned: you can't go with your best team out there every single week.

"Like last weekend against Glasgow probably we got a good hammering but Liam O'Connor and Sean O'Connor and those guys would have learned from that game.

"You can use that later whereas if you just pick your best boys we probably would have had a better chance of winning that game, but then at the important part of the season all your main guys would have had all those minutes in them (instead of) the guys who are going to carry you there.

"So we're trying to manage the squad a little bit so everyone is a little bit fresher if you get to the knock-out stages. Mentally we were up for it last season (the semi-final against Saracens) but physically we were a bit tired there."

By the time those GPS stats are being totted, Erasmus will be back in South Africa with Johann van Graan having landed up in Limerick. All the faffing around on that subject should end soon enough.

By comparison, Leinster are the picture of consistency. Unlike Ulster, with Jono Gibbes and Dwayne Peel well settled in instead of Allen Clarke and Neil Doak, the coaching team in Belfield has been spared that upheaval.

Rather Leo Cullen is aiming higher than last season on the back of lessons learned from that campaign, plus their new recruits.

"The guard has shifted in France, hasn't it? If you think that Toulouse are not even in the tournament it's hard to even contemplate that fact a few years ago. Four times winners - so there's an opportunity for us to become four-time winners this season. And Toulon. And join Toulouse. Toulouse can't become five-time winners. So we've an opportunity to close the gap and equal them - that's how I look at it."

Staying fit and well is central to realising that ambition. It's worth bearing in mind that the connection being made between law trials, ball-in-play time, and increased injury as against the backdrop of madmen who want to squeeze the Six Nations into five weeks, and stretch the club season even further.

The battleground where those loons got control was Europe, this competition that kicks off next weekend. The current mood music wasn't what they had in mind. You should be careful what you wish for.

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