Neil Francis: Change in approach key to avoid repeat of injury crisis
Players' problems stem from the pursuit of power over skills as much as bad luck.
There was a term that struck a chord with me in the movie Detachment, which starred Adrien Brody. Playing a teacher he wrote the word 'Assimilation' on the board and asked for an explanation. 'To absorb' was the best answer he got. Next he wrote 'Ubiquitous' and got the answer 'everywhere all of the time'.
Ubiquitous Assimilation: always absorbing everything, all of the time. Would that the parties charged with preparing the national side be graced with such a facility. Nowhere, at any level, did you ever get a sense that the squad had made some form of arithmetic progression since their 60-0 setback in New Zealand. Such a cataclysmic reverse is normally a catalyst for change and a reinforcement of strongly held principles.
The injury situation that blighted the national side's performance this season was so pronounced that it requires some form of audit – not for the purposes of apportioning blame but purely for the clarification and the implementation and redefining of strategy so that it does not happen again.
I wrote in these pages back in the autumn that coming into the November series it would be appropriate that an inquiry be held into the fact that our six best players in the squad were unavailable for selection. It was a major factor in the chances of success for the side. Little did I know what was to come about through injuries only a few months later.
It got to the stage that if you considered the run-on XV that started against Italy last week you would have put your property tax money on a composite side of the injured players (being fit) and the bones of the rest of the squad beating that side. Luke Fitzgerald, Simon Zebo, Darren Cave, Gordon D'Arcy, Tommy Bowe, Jonathan Sexton, Eoin Reddan, Tom Court, Richardt Strauss, Declan Fitzpatrick, Paul O'Connell, Dan Tuohy, Stephen Ferris, Kevin McLoughlin, Chris Henry.
That's a better side than the one that played against Italy. To have them all injured or unavailable – well you choose the adjective.
Hard to know where to start, perhaps the concussion issue takes priority over the broken bones and soft tissue.
Brian O'Driscoll and Luke Marshall are undersized centres. Both picked up concussions against France trying to stop bigger centres out on the park. Driceaux came back on because that's the person he is. Luke Marshall didn't even know that he was Luke Marshall.
The worst concussion I suffered was in France in 1988. I was knocked out cold. I vomited shortly after I came around and I was kept in hospital for a day. In the days afterwards I found it difficult to bring a glass to my mouth. I struggled to explain to my mother what had happened, simple conversations required my fullest concentration. I could not finish all of the postcards (how quaint) that I had bought because writing was a problem.
Jimmy Davidson put me under pressure to make myself available for selection. Why would I not play a mere four days later? Even running out on to the rock-hard paddock as a water boy for the French-Barbarian game to dispense some much needed H2O to the team gave me a headache.
If Luke Marshall had no idea who he was during the French game, how in the name of Jehovah was he sent out to play a Test match seven days later against the team that are traditionally viewed as the most physical in the Six Nations? The kid took another hit. It wasn't as bad as the one against the French but what if it had been a really bad one and he was knocked out cold? I thought the decision to play this young player in that environment in the circumstances was wrong.
Fergus Dunlea had his rugby career ended by three bad concussions. I get the feeling that after two concussions in quick succession that Marshall isn't on a 'three strikes and you're out' ticket. You can't heal brain injuries. The IRB are always prattling on about player welfare and best practice but it's back to basics – a three-week mandatory rest and to hell with the cog tests. It's a particular problem in Ireland. Because of the shallow playing-pool our concussed players sometimes get put back in on the frontline quicker than they might in some other countries.
On the corporeal front, it is difficult to legislate for broken bones. Eoin Reddan's unfortunate ankle break was virtually unavoidable in the circumstances. No amount of pre-emptive or preventative measures can stop you from breaking a bone in contact sport.
Their body types and the way Ireland are physiologically conditioned has been put forward as reasons why the players are more prone to injury. The game has changed and you can see it in the body shapes of the modern professional. The requirement is now for aerobically complete players. To achieve this, body-fat levels have to drop and the players have to put on more lean muscle.
Herschel Walker, the former Dallas Cowboy running-back, had a world famous one to two per cent body-fat rate which is just freakish. An incredibly talented ball carrier, he spent a huge amount of time on the treatment table. Lean muscle bleeds and tears far more easily in contact sport and is more difficult to heal. Commentators have made the point that Ireland's team are too lean – Mike Ross being the solitary salad dodger. Compare, say, Ireland's second-row Donnacha Ryan, our lean and rangy boiler room exponent.
I would not think he is any leaner than Geoff Parling, Jim Hamilton, Ian Evans or even the guy you would benchmark yourself against – Sam Whitelock of the New Zealand All Blacks. All of these second rows, years ago, would have been bigger men, not necessarily heavier because muscle weighs more than fat, they would have been bulkier but because they now have to get around the pitch quicker and sustain higher levels of aerobic fitness they must become lean. The exceptions are the guys like Ross and Adam Jones but that is purely because they are scrummagers and, in the back line, people like Bastareau and Tuilagi.
The 'lean' explanation really is an unfounded assertion. Our lean players are just like everybody else's lean players, except ours are getting injured. England, Scotland and, after Christmas, Wales simply didn't have injuries of the same scale and consequence that we had.
I think that it has a lot to do with the type of game we play. We do have a power deficit and we try and counter it in a couple of ways. Ireland have to expend more energy because, traditionally, we spend more time without the ball. We have to tackle more, tackle harder and cover more ground. We are capable of boxing above our weight but we get caught for fatigue and exhaustion, particularly in the second half. We also don't have the quality on the bench and our players play for longer and in the games where there is only a week between Test matches that counts. When you are tired you get injured. In the quest for power we lose other qualities.
Who is the guy that gets injured the most in Ireland's squad? It is Stephen Ferris. If Ferris never went to a weights room again he would still be too powerful for most of his opponents. Our forwards in particular spend too much time doing heavy weights in the gym to the detriment of the finer footballing and handling skills. What they gain in power they lose in flexibility. It's very hard to combine the two, you lose flexibility and you make yourself very prone to injury.
It is a given that comparing youths with full-grown men is not a like-for-like situation. Yet something could be learned from Blackrock College's SCT and JCT Cup winning sides this year. Neither team had injuries of any consequence during the season and none during their cup runs. Light weights, power calisthenics and a major focus on flexibility programmes were key to their success.
Irish international players pull, strain or tear ligaments, tendons and muscle groups because they have gone for power in the need to keep up with international trend. Although a goodly amount of them do plyometrics, pilates and core-strength exercises, they still injure too easily despite this and this must be addressed.
You cannot legislate for dumb luck which plays a huge part in international sport. Nor can you countenance for a negative state of mind, which was prevalent in the squad. That certainly had a role to play in their injury toll and consequent lack of success. It is not a coincidence that winning teams or teams that are humming always seem to ship fewer injuries.
This state of affairs on the injury front should never happen again. Ubiquitous assimilation from all the support functions are required. It will have to be a collaborative process between the medics and conditioning people to learn from this disaster. They need to plan, change and implement our squad while we have only a small number away with the Lions in Australia during the summer.