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Risk versus reward

While we are fortunate in South African rugby to have a deep pool of depth, there is no question that the growing list of unavailable players is a valid concern.

Heyneke Meyer will still select a strong group on Saturday evening for the impending June test series but the reality is that injuries and player movement is blighting the Boks.

Meyer is judged purely on performance and the rugby public and media are largely unsympathetic to his current plight. It is a worry that so many first-choice starters are not available for Springbok selection.

If we examine the first point, there is no doubt that the injury rate is increasing. I can say this with some conviction as for the last ten years, I’ve been working as a consultant to an insurance firm monitoring player injuries in rugby.

The last two seasons in particular have seen an explosion of injuries. Never before have there been so many players injured across the board.

With this empirical evidence in hand, one would naturally conclude that modern players are simply playing too much rugby. While this point is valid, it’s crucial to dig deeper and look at the problem from a physiological perspective.

Prior to the advent of the professional era, rugby catered to all shapes and sizes but the pace of the modern game has increased to such a degree that there is virtually no room for anyone other than top-conditioned athletes. In a sense, the game has almost outgrown itself when it comes to conditioning.

The modern player is stronger, faster and fitter than ever before which heightens the game’s physicality. Working as an assistant coach to the Springbok under-20 side, I marvel at how fast and physical our players have become at such a young age.

We are all in favour of the increased pace the game is played at but the reality is that there is a lot more high speed collisions than ever before, which greatly increases the risk of injury.

While the quality of southern hemisphere rugby remains strong, with the public still getting a quality product, at some point the elephant in the room needs to be addressed. South African rugby is hemorrhaging top players because the current schedule is too physically taxing.

While the game’s administrators would naturally be fingered as the culprits, I believe this line of thinking is counterproductive. Similarly, a player strike would not best address the issue. I would suggest that the relevant parties meet collectively to plot the way forward.

The market for rugby players is ever-increasing and as such the players expect their salaries to expand. From the administrators’ point of view, they have an allocated budget and need a certain number of games to be played in order to make the sums work.

We therefore need to solve this problem at ground level. Maybe the answer is players accepting less money and therefore playing less rugby? This may sound absurd but at some point one of the main stakeholders needs to step in to reverse the tide.

Somewhere along the line, local players need to be advised to take less money in order to prolong their careers.

Turning to the top-of-the-table SA conference clash, we can expect a fierce encounter between the Bulls and Cheetahs this Saturday.

Both sides are now smelling the playoffs and are aware of the rewards victory would bring. Expect a highly physical display from South Africa’s in-form sides. During my playing days, big hits were the exception but these days they have become the rule.

There is much riding on this game for both sides and thus the intensity will increase as will the risk of injury. I expect the Bulls to target the Cheetahs’ ten channel and while it will be a hard-fought derby, I’m backing the Bulls to edge the encounter.

Further south, the Stormers welcome the Kings to Newlands. Owing to the fact the Stormers are not playing against the competitions’ strongest offence, expect them to keep the Kings out on attack.

And with Allister Coetzee’s side not notoriously dominant on attack, I see a goal-kicking duel ensuing. The Stormers will prevail but it won’t be by a great margin.

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