Sunday 18 February 2018

Conor O'Shea: Painful truth is that players rarely function at 100 per cent

Top stars deserve huge respect for their ability to play through pain

'We read last week about Luke Fitzgerald going in and having a labrum repair that will sideline him for the rest of the season — all of two weeks!'
'We read last week about Luke Fitzgerald going in and having a labrum repair that will sideline him for the rest of the season — all of two weeks!'

Conor O'Shea

You know the story. You go into the car dealership to get a small job done to keep the car roadworthy and all of a sudden you are told the engine is faulty, the tyres need changing and a small job has suddenly cost you a fortune as the real state of the car you have been driving comes to light.

In rugby circles, the same process is going on right now as coaches are meeting with their medical and performance teams to discuss their players at the end of the season to ensure that each player has an optimal off-season and they are ready for next season with no hangover from the last. So, as you read this, some players are being sent in for their own MOTs. The difference this year compared to other years is that with the Rugby World Cup around the corner the outcome of these consultations are hitting the headlines.

We read last week about Luke Fitzgerald going in and having a labrum repair that will sideline him for the rest of the season - all of two weeks! He is joining Seán Cronin and Marty Moore, amongst others, on the sidelines due to end-of-season surgery. There are many players in the UK and Ireland in the same boat.

Some needed immediate operations, others have been playing knowing surgical intervention was inevitable at some stage. When you look out on a pitch at this stage of the season you know that a lot of the players are not 100 per cent fit.

It is one of the reasons why I have unbelievable respect for rugby players, and all sports people. There is no doubt that there are players at this time of year who are doing a job for their team-mates and their supporters, who are pushing their bodies to the limit despite the fact that at times they will be criticised for performances when those people will not understand what they are doing for their team. It is why you should never judge a book by its cover.

Read more: Neil Francis: Krusty the Clown or Pee Wee Herman would do a better job at Leinster than Matt O'Connor

Of course I am not privy to Luke Fitzgerald's injury history but in any season players will carry an injury; if it is a labrum tear as in Luke's case the medical and performance team will sit down and assess the risk to the player; if it was an anterior labral tear then they will probably have to intervene immediately as the shoulder could dislocate but if it was posterior then the risk isn't as great.

The risk is still there but it is a lesser one and the shoulder can be strengthened, the player manages and he can do a job for his team. The question is whether the player has the mental toughness to deal with it. And from the outside Luke looks like that sort of player but he will play knowing that at the right time he will be sent in for his MOT. Luke has probably been playing for quite a while with this and has just got on with it for the team and then has had the surgery in enough time so as not to compromise his RWC chances. A lot of people would have been involved in the decision-making process.

This is not like the debate surrounding concussion and things that are hidden. Medical and conditioning teams are incredible now - they really can manage and look after players. I used to look at older retired players when I played and saw them limping around and would say to myself, 'I would never be like them'. You want to finish and be able to run around and play with your children, yet still when you look out at these players who put their bodies on the line we should always marvel at what they are willing to do to achieve their goal. They have an ability to function where normal people can't.

I asked a player earlier this year how he was and he looked at me and said, "Not great boss but you never are 100 per cent, you just get on with it, don't you?" That resonated with me. Players with a target to go for and an understanding of how it impacts them are capable of amazing things but their health and long-term welfare will never be compromised. If something needs to be addressed, it will be; if it can be managed without compromising future plans, then it will be.

That is why you have such respect between players in a dressing room - only they know what their mates are doing for them and the cause. So when you look out on a pitch as the season draws to a close, do so through a different lens, do so with a knowledge that no-one is being compromised, but also know that players are putting their bodies through things that normal people just couldn't.

Mental toughness and an ability to deliver when not 100 per cent is not something everyone is born with and that is why not everyone has an ability to overcome adversity and play sport at the highest level. A lot of MOTs will be happening to get players ready for the Rugby World Cup or for the start of the Pro12, Top 14 and the Premiership seasons. It isn't all glam.

Read more: "George North's career could be finished if he suffers further concussions" - Gatland

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