Tuesday 25 June 2019

Neil Francis: Dealing with weighty issue of exactly how much is enough

Players focus too much on what they can lift rather than how well they play the game, writes Neil Francis

'If Cian Healy never went to the gym again, I suspect that he would still be too strong, too dynamic and too good for his opponents.' Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
'If Cian Healy never went to the gym again, I suspect that he would still be too strong, too dynamic and too good for his opponents.' Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

It was one of the best moments in Breaking Bad - which I have watched twice and will probably go back to a third time.

For those who don't know, the series features Walter White, a sedentary mild-mannered chemistry teacher who, on the back of a terminal lung cancer prognosis, went to the dark side and began cooking crystal meth so his lower-middle income family could survive in New Mexico.

His wife Skyler (how many Skylers were born in Dublin's maternity hospitals this year?) has reluctantly been sucked into his illegal scheme and has unwillingly been laundering some of the enormous amounts of cash he was making through a car wash business. Unhappy with her situation and with their relationship on the brink, they meet in a lock-up and she pulls a tarpaulin off a double pallet to reveal a mountain of cash. She patently just wants her life back and turns to him and says, "this is what you have been working for." "How much is this?" replies Walt. "More money than we can spend in 10 lifetimes," she whispers to her husband. "Walt, please tell me - how much is enough? How big does this pile need to be?"

The realisation set in. The money was inconsequential; the idea of providing for his family was now of secondary importance. He could not now divest himself of the lure of the cycle of cooking and selling this product. He was lost to them, but that line should not be lost on anyone.

How much is enough?

Last year I wrote about the prevalence of hip injuries among established Leinster first-team players and also the Academy. Deep squatting with enormous weights on the bar was the prime reason. The musculature of these young men was simply unable to cope with the torsion and strain and the result was problematic hip injuries which required surgical intervention. In fairness to Leinster, they addressed the issue professionally, in particular in their academy. As far as I am aware there haven't been any further hip injuries of significance since.

Hips were last season's injury, this year it's hamstrings. Up to about the year 2000, hamstring injuries were pretty common, particularly amongst backs. The advent of professionalism brought a greater understanding of the physiological conditioning of rugby players and injury prevention. Simple applications of plyometrics, stretching and core strengthening. If you were working on your quads, make sure that there wasn't going to be an imbalance between the front and the back of the leg. Keep your back and spine supple too, the whole thing is interconnected. Nearly all players on professional rosters observed the rules and regulations in relation to hamstrings and as a consequence the injury became almost passé. The odd strain in one of the thoroughbreds, but always manageable.

Leinster in the last few months have picked up some serious hamstring injuries, two of which are catastrophic. Richardt Strauss and Cian Healy have, in a short space of time, picked up hamstring avulsions. This is where the hamstring is torn completely away from the bone (ischial tuberosity); sometimes a part of the bone comes away with the muscle. All of the orthopods and physios that I talked to said the injury is highly uncommon, so to have two of these rare injuries in the space of five months . . . well you decide whether you can attribute it to just bad luck.

Healy and Strauss both had to have their hamstrings stapled or sewn back on. There is no guarantee that either will get close to being 100 per cent again. When you have a car crash and the car is repaired, the job might look seamless but the suspension or the electrics or the shocks are never the same again. The fervent hope is that both Healy and Strauss make a full recovery - they are too important to Leinster and Ireland.

Zane Kirchner and Shane Jennings also had significant tears. Nowadays any hamstring injury over three weeks is a good tear. Kirchner could have been available this weekend but Jennings still has a fair bit to go.

There is legitimacy in the question that I am asking: How could four experienced players manage to damage their hamstrings to that degree? I will get straight to the point.

As rugby players go about preparations for their weekly matches, they must try to achieve a balance between the amount of weights they do, the amount of running, stretching, practical application of the skills, etc. All of these they must do within the parameters of fatigue and certain time constraints.

I feel that now equilibrium has been lost and a tipping point or a threshold has been reached. The weights room has become, I think, a problem. We have arrived at a situation where, with some players, their muscle bulk interferes with their rugby performance. The hunger for power to the detriment of improving the basic tenets of the game, you know - football - give a pass, receive a pass as opposed to sticking another 5kgs onto your dead lift.

The tipping point has arrived when ligaments and tendons can no longer support muscle on the bone, when players become too big for their bodies. The weights room was a means to an end, now it has too high a role, but it's too late. They won't row back.

Healy's injury apparently was a freak. He was walking and the hamstring just tore off the bone. Medically that can happen, but surely there must be internal stress and torsions in play within the body.

Healy's prowess in the gym is renowned and he can lift staggering amounts of lead, but the question has to be asked, how big does he want to be? How much stronger does he want to get? How much is enough?

If Healy never went to the gym again in his professional career I suspect that he would still be too strong, too dynamic and too good for his opponents. Strength and conditioning coaches will always tell you that you have to constantly maintain your weights programme and conditioning. What do you think Mandy Rice-Davies? There are ways of getting stronger without bulking up in a weights room.

Leinster had a great knack in the past, particularly from 2009 to 2012, of getting all of their best players on the pitch with form and momentum in the important matches. Maybe your luck just runs. I am not attaching blame to anyone for that. Leinster, though, with their current hamstring hoodoo leading the way, have a worryingly large list of injured players. Leicester Tigers also have a dreadful plight where about 20 players in their squad are injured and some are playing while injured. The blame across the water is on Richard Cockerill's heavily attritional training and the weights room.

The unfortunate Healy has to rehab from his surgery. He will have a huge cast around his leg and will not be able to function properly, even on an everyday level. It must be highly frustrating for him. He will have months of painful and lonely rehab ahead of him. Wouldn't it be great if he came back a stone or so lighter, leaner and his musculature wasn't forced to deal with coming back, say, a stone heavier?

How much is enough? Less is more, as somebody told me last week.

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