Injuries to decide S14 winner?

2010-04-13 11:35

Ross Tucker

Over the course of a demanding Vodacom Super 14 season, injury management often makes the difference between a good or great season.

A serious injury to a key player, or a spate of three or four consecutive injuries, will usually turn a season for the worse.

The injuries to Cheetahs stars Heinrich Brüssow and Lionel Mapoe come to mind, costing those players an entire Super 14 season. (And, in the case of Brüssow, the whole year.)

Recently, 502 professional rugby players were tracked over the course of two seasons, with training and match time, the number of injuries and the severity thereof all documented.

Over the course of two seasons, players accumulated 11 581 hours of match time, and 197 811 hours of training time. Bear in mind that a match makes up a total of 20 hours of player time – 15 players play 80 minutes, and this time is added up to produce the total of 20 hours. Similarly, training time is made up of all the time spent by each player in training.

A total of 1 475 injuries were reported, an average of three injuries per player in just two seasons! Of course, some players escape the ‘hoodoo’ altogether, while others may pick up five or six injuries in this time.

Not surprisingly, injuries are far more likely to happen during matches than during training. It turns out that an injury will occur once every 10.7 player hours in a match. Remember that a match consists of 20 total hours, because each player plays an hour and 20 minutes.

This means that on average, there will be two injuries per team per match.

You may also recall that a few weeks ago, we looked at how the second half of matches required more running, more distance covered, twice as many impacts and less rest than the first half. Linked to that is that an injury during a match is about 30% more likely to occur in the second half than in the first, and this injury will also be more severe, forcing the player to miss an average of 20 days of rugby, compared to 16 for an injury that happens in the first half. This once again emphasises how vital fitness, conditioning and player management are, since fatigue seems an important contributor to injury risk and severity.

In training, the incidence of injuries is a lot lower – an injury occurs once every 500 hours. To help conceptualise what this means, if a team has a squad of 40 players, and each player spends eight hours per week training, the weekly total training time is 320 hours. Since an injury occurs once every 500 hours in training, you would predict that an injury would occur once every 11 days in training.

In the course of a 16-week season, that means you can expect 11 injuries, or more than a quarter of the team to be injured in training!

Clearly, the rate of injuries is high, emphasising how vital good player management is.

The next question might be whether these injuries are serious? It turns out that an injury in training costs a player an average of 23 days away from the game, whereas an injury during a match will force a player to miss about 19 days. In other words, a training injury is slightly more severe than a match injury, which is a surprising finding. The incidence and severity are, of course, both dependent on where the injury happens. Most injuries occur to the legs, but these are less severe than arm or shoulder injuries, which cost about six weeks of time away from the game compared to two only for the lower limbs.

Finally, some training activities carry much higher risk than others.

It turns out that fitness testing is the highest risk type of training.

This does not mean it should be done away with, since it is obviously vital to assess players’ conditioning objectively, otherwise the risk of injury during matches may risk as players are poorly conditioned.

However, it does emphasise how carefully such testing should be done, and by qualified people. Other high-risk sessions include, not surprisingly, rucking and mauling training, and defence drills, whereas skills training, lineouts, scrummaging, weight training, and speed, agility and endurance training all carry lower risk of injury.

The dilemma for coaches is to balance these risks with the potential rewards. Defence, for example, is vital to a successful Super 14 campaign, but the high risk of injury can just as easily cause two or three injuries, each costing two to three weeks of player time and a downturn in the teams’ fortunes. It is a fine balance, and one which may well determine the destination of the Super 14 trophy.

Ross Tucker has PhD in Exercise Physiology from the UCT Faculty of Health Sciences and is currently a member of Paul Treu's SA Sevens management team.

Disclaimer: Sport24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on Sport24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Sport24.

Stormers fullback Joe Pietersen - currently on the injured list (File)


  • STORMER - 2010-04-13 11:50

    Doc Tucker, what does the 'average SA S14 squad' fitness testing entail? Is it the regular cardiovascular endurance testing/muscle strength testing/flexibility and range motion testing? Or are the tests adapted? And is there any conformity in the results achieved by the various squads? For us as supporters all we hear is: this one can bench press this, and this one runs the 100m in 10 secs and this one can walk on water (JJ Harmse on Shadow vd Heever) - but it would be awesome to actually understand what all this means in the greater scheme of rugby things. And I can believe that injuries are more likely to take place during Fitness testing - one just has to cast an eye on what is happening in gyms around the country when "part time athletes" are tested by "supposedly qualified" trainers. Scary sh#t that is.

  • The Godfather - 2010-04-13 12:45

    You sure you listed enough stats there? I've got a headache...

  • Boerseun - 2010-04-13 14:56

    Astonishing !! An even bigger influence on the outcome of a S14 is bad refereeing,linesmanship and even crooked TV refs. How do one manage that Doc ?

  • Whats up ZDOC? - 2010-04-14 08:31

    Thanks DOC, now run along I think your Hbby is calling.

  • Laeveld Stormer - 2010-04-14 11:38

    Wow, interesting. Good work!

  • Ross Tucker - 2010-04-14 13:02

    Hi folks Thanks for the question. To the Godfather - sorry about the stats. Maybe you should read in installments to prevent that. To Stormer: Good question. There will be a lot of overlap between what the teams do - a standard battery of tests would include the "bleep test", the 40m sprint test, a 1-RM bench press and sometimes squat. Then there are modified tests, and also tests done only when a player is injured and undergoing rehab (like the isokinetic tests that players do for muscle injuries). As near as I can tell, there's no shared database where all player results are pooled, and I'm not even sure testing is standardized enough. The generic testing is probably done twice a season, at most. Before the first big camp, and then another just before the actual matches start. In season, recovery time is generally too short to allow it be done again. So twice a season, then again pre-Currie Cup for most. Some teams will also implement testing that is sub-maximal, where they look at the heart rates of players during a standard test to see if the players are excessively fatigued or overtrained. That's done by a few of the teams now. To Boereseun: You don't. You can't control the referees, and as poorly as they might perform, a pre-occupation with them will almost always cause a negative outcome. You might lose 5% as a result of worrying about their mistakes, and that 5% is often the difference. Teams should rather adopt the attitude that they are going to win despite the incompetence! Easier said than done, of course, but you'll never change it, so best to work around it! Then to "Whats up ZDOC": What do you mean? Am I missing something? Who is my "Hbby"?

  • Ross Tucker - 2010-04-14 16:43

    Just to add, regarding the refs. Earlier this year, we started looking at the idea that we could analyse referee performances in order to "manage" them better. For example, some refs might penalise the attacking team more often at the breakdown, whereas others might be biased against the defensive team. So we set about doing this analysis, looking why they awarded penalties and against whom. Turned out to be a waste of time, because there was no pattern. Two ways to look at this - either they're genuinely trying and the old saying that it goes in circles is true. Or, alternatively, they're really incompetent and take guesses. But the point is that you can't spend energy on worrying about it. That wasted energy costs you 5% and that 5% is the difference between winning and losing, even with the poor ref performance. So the approach for players and coaches must be to get on with it, to perform BETTER in order to overcome, and channel the frustration towards play. It's helluva difficult though, and when a decision at a crucial time goes against you, it's really easy to feel that things are conspiring against you, but I don't think this is true. Ross

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