After eight years of relatively little injury in professional rugby, this season has seen a huge surge in injuries, with several Premiership clubs suffering from mounting sick lists and heavily depleted team lists – not what you want when facing your opponent on the field.
This has not gone unnoticed, with commentators, physicians and administrators weighing in on the issue, and it is interesting to hear from an actual player about the problem.
That player was Billy Vunipola, the Saracens and England No. 8, whose future this season may be in jeopardy due to a knee cartilage injury that means he will be likely to miss the autumn internationals kicking off next month and may see him left out of next year’s Six Nations tournament.
Before his latest injury – which will see him undergo his third operation this year (following knee and shoulder trouble during the Lions tour of New Zealand), Billy spoke with Ugo Monye and Chris Jones on Billy Vunipola, and spelled out a hard truth: that the demands of the modern game are getting even more intense, and that any youngster aiming for a career in professional rugby must be prepared for physical damage and mental burnout.
“Surgery at 25 is normal”
“I didn't enjoy being on the surgery table twice in one year and that's supposed to be deemed as normal,” said Billy. “Kids want to play rugby because it's fun – but they also need to know that it's tough, and it's normal to have surgery at 25 because you're so worn down."
Injury prevention from the ground up
Elite players like Vunipola are dealing with an increased workload brought about by international tournaments, conflicts between club rugby and the national associations, and an off-season that’s getting shorter and shorter thanks to summer tours. Measures have been taken to put a cap on the amount of games members of the England elite squad can play per season – currently its 32 – but how is injury prevention being tackled at a lower level?
The RFU was recently able to give some positive news about injury prevention; an exercise programme that had been introduced to schools and age-grade club rugby had led to a reduction of overall injuries by 72% and the number of concussions by over 50% in those players that performed the exercises at least three times a week.
The programme, developed alongside the University of Bath, is called Activate and almost 1,000 clubs and coaches have signed up to it since its launch. Exercises include running and changing direction techniques and lower-body balance and resistance training. As well as reducing injuries, the hope is that initiatives like this will address any fears about the dangers of the sport.
Steve Grainger, the RFU rugby development director, commented: “All we can keep doing is two things, demonstrate what we are doing to make the game safer and keep trying to get over the positives of the game – the core values and the things that those kids get out of it.”