Johannesburg - Springbok captain Warren Whiteley’s failure to recover from his injury in time for the end-of-year tour has not only put team management on notice to continue finding leadership alternatives, they may do well to start thinking about managing players who play for Japanese clubs.
Whiteley’s injury, a torn ligament in his pelvis sustained in June, was only supposed to keep him out of the game for six to eight weeks. But last week the talk had shifted to him needing another two months to convalesce.
With Bok team doctor Konrad von Hagen saying nobody is to blame for Whiteley’s injury, it would be daft for us keyboard warriors to speculate too loudly about what may have caused it.
But given the fact that he is part of a group of key Springbok players whose careers straddle the South African and Japanese landscape, it’s hard to resist coming up with the inevitable five when adding the two and two of playing all year round in SA and Japan and injury.
The Japanese club scene has been a godsend for SA Rugby during a period in which the Rand has come off second best in its collisions with the British Pound and the Euro, which has led to a player exodus, a weakened national team and domestic scene.
Japan’s domestic season, which almost nestles perfectly between the South African domestic season and Super Rugby, has been an elegant solution in that the players’ salaries are topped up by the competitive Yen and they are pretty much available for the SA season and the Boks.
The catch is they are now on the rugby treadmill 12 months a year, and in a wrecking-ball sport like rugby, injury is one way the body can rebel against the constant pounding, especially when said players no longer have a pre-season to strengthen their bodies for the strain.
Over time, they will go from arriving for Super Rugby battle-hardened to turning up battle-fatigued.
With the 2019 World Cup in mind, the group which needs careful monitoring going forward are Whiteley, Elton Jantjies, Franco Mostert and Jaco Kriel. But without even delving into what it would mean contractually, the question is how does SA Rugby try to keep them fresh, ironically for Japan?
Leading sports scientist Ross Tucker says knowing how much rest an individual player needs is not an exact science: “No one can quantify how many games a player can play before breaking down. Years ago Jean de Villiers broke down after about 33 games, but that could be a coincidence.
“In baseball they count how many pitches a pitcher can make before he has to rest...in rugby it’s quite difficult to say".
By way of explanation why putting it in a nutshell is so hard, Tucker used the example of optimum training in the English Premiership (rugby). “When you have a large increase in training the injury risk goes up, similarly when you have less training the injury risk still goes up.
Back into shape
“They use acute versus chronic loading, which is how much training has been done this week against the average of the last three weeks’ training. When the ratio of acute loading against chronic loading goes up or down, the risk of injury goes up".
Central to the problem of how much rest is enough, rest is the individuality of the players, said Tucker. Whether you’ve earmarked four or six weeks of complete rest, how quickly you can recondition the players is entirely dependent on how quickly they can get back into shape.
Also the more time you give a player off the less time you have to get him ready, which means an aggressive approach to reconditioning, which could lead to the player breaking down.
Further clouding the issue, and this is particularly the case with SA players, is the fact that in one year they can work under three different conditioning coaches (at Super Rugby, Springbok and club level).
“If you have one centre of command from a conditioning perspective you don’t lose the ability to monitor and control what they’re doing".
One hates to say this, but because they employ everyone at Super Rugby and at All Blacks level, the New Zealanders are the only people in this position.
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