Sport Rugby

Thursday 18 July 2019

Neil Francis: 'Lean muscle is great for running fast - but you need fat to be able to absorb contact'

'Leinster's hamstring epidemic continues unabated. Fergus McFadden, after injuring his hamstring in the Heineken Cup semi-final, injured it again and is out for four or five months.' Photo: Sportsfile
'Leinster's hamstring epidemic continues unabated. Fergus McFadden, after injuring his hamstring in the Heineken Cup semi-final, injured it again and is out for four or five months.' Photo: Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

The flip side of success for a rugby player is injury. While the country basks in the feel-good factor after the win over the All Blacks, the players associated with the series enjoy their well-deserved credit and adulation. But those lying prone on the treatment table voice their congratulations through gritted teeth. It is hard sometimes to feign sincerity.

I was having a bowl of soup before the Argentina game when news came through that Robbie Henshaw had been withdrawn during the warm-up. Tightness in the hamstring. There were no lies being told there - a grade three tear of the hamstring will leave you with a soupcon of tightness. Eight to ten weeks out! Wow! It is rare to get through a week of camp and sustain a serious injury in the warm-up. Where did that come from?

Henshaw will be our starting inside centre in the World Cup final next November - ok, ok he will be our starting inside centre against England in the Aviva in February - if he is free from injury. He has begun to pick up too many injuries in the last season or two and maybe this injury is symptomatic of a cycle regularly injured players find themselves in.

Leinster's hamstring epidemic continues unabated. Fergus McFadden, after injuring his hamstring in the Heineken Cup semi-final, injured it again and is out for four or five months. Joe Tomane picked up an equally serious hamstring tear two weeks ago and is out for five months. A player who previously had a negligible history of hamstring trouble suddenly pulls a daddy of all tears a month or two into his tenure in his new club.

Once again no other province comes close to shipping the level and severity of hamstring injuries that the eastern province manages to. It is true that Louis Ludik has come back from a bad tear up in Ulster, but that was a Haley's Comet of an injury.

It has got to the stage now in Leinster where you have to ask who hasn't had a serious hamstring injury in the squad. This catalogue has been ongoing for four or five years now. Has there been an inquiry? Or a review on strength and conditioning programmes? No other province has come remotely close to this sort of toll. Leinster do catalogue and profile their player injuries, but it would be better to try harder to prevent them.

Leinster's soft tissue injury rate has decreased but their trauma rate has increased. Does luck play its part? Joe Tomane's injury was classified as a trauma injury. He was running down the sideline, lost balance and while on one leg he was hit hard. The hamstring is the easiest point of give apparently.

I suffered from more than my fair share of injuries during my career. There was almost a frisson of 'what's wrong with him now?' at some press conferences. I would, however, have been laughed out of town if ever a reason given for me not playing was 'general tightness.' You just wouldn't have got away with it. Since when do 24-year-olds suffer from 'general tightness?'

Management may not have cared to tell us precisely what the problem was but maybe it actually was a combination of gentle pulls, tears, bruises, lesions, haematomas and soreness over the whole body, which, if you played against the All Blacks would graduate into something more serious. Do you just get a sense that Leinster players' muscular skeletal system has been warped somehow and that they are one awkward turn away from pressure valve release injury?

Henshaw's hamstring was explained as change in regime and a soggy pitch. McFadden's was a combination of factors - age being one of them.

Your parents always told you never to buy a car that was involved in a car crash, it is never the same again once the chassis is damaged, nothing ever flows smoothly in the workings again.

The injured player merry-go-round is very, very difficult to get off. All three current hamstring victims are on it and will be lucky to be able to get off it. There are quite a number of starting players whose bodies have been banged out of shape and as soon as they get back they invariably pick up another injury.

I said after Seán O'Brien got injured in the Argentina game that maybe he had been involved in too many fights at the OK Corral. I thought that the timing of the injury was significant - just before half-time. O'Brien did not have his best half of international rugby and he may have been fatigued. I think he mistimed his tackle and there was an element of bad luck about it when you think about Tomas Lavanini's slight duck making him have to re-gauge the tackle.

It also has to be said that O'Brien probably being a bit off his game contributed. I think if O'Brien had been fully match-fit and up to the pitch of the game he would have executed that tackle correctly. It was symptomatic of injured player syndrome - getting injured again because his body is susceptible to more injury and because he could not get back into a run of games which makes you a little more prone to a recurrence.

There is also a school of thought that there is a slavish obsession with lean muscle tissue, a push to have athletes leaner so that they look sharper and quicker. A dexa scan is normally used to determine bone strength or mass. It can detect osteoporosis but it can also accurately detect your BMI and sometimes when I look at professional rugby I think it's like a beauty contest to see which player has the lowest BMI.

I always point to the case of American football's Herschel Walker - the brilliant Heisman Trophy winner and a man who ran a 10.23 100 metres. He had sensational speed for a running back. Walker's BMI was 1.4 per cent. That is unnatural - even the skinniest marathon runner couldn't get close to that.

Despite Walker's freakish talent, he never really fulfilled his promise or potential. Walker spent his life on the treatment table. Brilliant performances, injury, passable performance, injury and then he was traded and he never really got a consistent run to accomplish anything of value in the NFL. Walker looked great but combat athletes have to be able to absorb hits.

You need fat to absorb the contact. Lean muscle is great for running fast but if you are a running back and carry 30 times in a game you will not be able to absorb all the punishment.

Listen to all the players talk about their diet adjustment and the amount of weight they have lost and how much lean muscle they have packed on and let them tell their story out the back of the physio room.

You might look better and run better and bench press more but you are gearing your bodies for the treatment table.

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