Sunday 22 September 2019

New medical chief adds to appeal of staying put

Paul O’Connell’s career-ender in the 2015 World Cup was the highest profile hamstring rupture. Photo: Matt Browne / Sportsfile
Paul O’Connell’s career-ender in the 2015 World Cup was the highest profile hamstring rupture. Photo: Matt Browne / Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

The absence of Simon Zebo from the Ireland side yesterday will rekindle for many the apparent unfairness of the unwritten rule restricting Test rugby only to those who play here - or in Zebo's case, have declared they will play elsewhere soon enough.

In the emotion of it all - stoked further by the inclusion of Bundee Aki, who patently is not Irish - many of Zebo's supporters overlooked that the policy works: our provinces and national side are competitive because our players are based on this island where they have a sympathetic support system.

The player welfare element in the mix is not sexy. It gets battered over the head by the great wads of cash on offer in France. We were reminded of it again last week by two things: first there was Rob Andrew's just-published memoir of his time in Twickenham's corridors of power; and second was the arrival on Lansdowne Road of a low-profile, but vastly experienced, medic by the name of Phil Glasgow.

Andrew's book The Game of My Life wouldn't exactly be a page-turner. Indeed, it's like an account of a man walking blindfolded through a minefield, as crisis after crisis blew up in English rugby. Along the way however, as director of elite rugby, he proved himself as sure-footed as a mountain goat. Between sacked coaches and misbehaving players there were bombs going off all around him. A couple of shrapnel wounds for sure, but nothing fatal.

Andrew is proudest of the back-to-back deals he brokered between clubs and country, allowing Team England decent access to players contracted to those clubs - a service for which the RFU pays through the nose. But with the union on a very sound financial footing, it was a cheque they knew they would have to write.

He remembers well the visit to Croke Park in 2007. The game came in the middle of the tournament, sandwiched between rounds of England's Premiership and what was then the Magners League. Nine of England's players who would face Ireland the following week played for their clubs in that league round. None of the Ireland lads featured in the Magners.

"There was a good deal of uproar," Andrew writes. "But while I was deep in negotiations with the clubs on a long-term deal designed to end this insanity, there was nothing to be done immediately."

Had it not been for these deals then Ireland, despite our comparably tiny playing base, would continue to punch well above our weight in the England fixture simply by the way we looked after our players.

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The RFU's deal with clubs has put manners on that now. So we need to make sure every other box is ticked to stay in the game. Keeping our players on the island is a big part of that. Keeping them fit is right up there as well. Which is where Phil Glasgow comes in.

An Ulsterian whose rugby connections go back to Methody and Dungannon before working with his province, the consultant physiotherapist has been around the traps, from Olympic Games, with GB and Ireland, to Commonwealth Games, and various points in between. Last week he started in a new role with the IRFU as head of physio and rehab.

Glasgow will oversee the operation, across our provincial and national sides, that aims to get ahead of the curve on preventing injury, in the first place, and optimising rehab in the second. There are a lot of moving parts in that.

"The only way that we can keep pace (with injury) is to ensure we've got good integration between the medical/physiotherapy, the athletic preparation and performance side and then coaching," he says. "And if you're not having good conversations with those people, if each bit's working in a little silo, then it will get away from you. But if you're working collectively and understand that this is the technical model and the way we're trying to play, and how we prevent injuries and manage them, then you can stay on top of things."

Along the way there are peaks and troughs in the frequency and nature of injuries in what is a brutal sport. For example, the apparent rash of serious hamstring ruptures in the last few seasons - Paul O'Connell's career-ender in the 2015 World Cup was the highest profile - has been the subject of ongoing research in the IRFU. Similarly, Leinster are working on understanding more about the seeming increase in the number of syndesmosis injuries (high ankle sprains) the latest victim of which is Isa Nacewa. Glasgow will be rowing in to co-ordinate and bring added value to the research already under way.

"If we'd been having this conversation 10 years ago the approach was to point our finger at one or two things, but what we've recognised, and this is how things have moved across the board internationally as well, is the true complexity of injury," he says.

"In the past maybe we thought if we get everybody just strong or if we get everybody just like this then we'll stop injury, but the truth is you need to do strength and mobility and control, as well as thinking about playing surfaces and coaching. When you put all those together you get a more composite model for reducing injury across the board. It's highly complex and I think that's why this role has been created."

The grand ambition is that Ireland can lead the way on some element in the mix - perhaps from the ongoing work on hamstring issues which Glasgow says is first class. En route the players who stay in this system will benefit from the effort. And that's worth pursuing.

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