The injury list: 20 per cent of a player's year

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The Independent Online

The losses of Lawrence Dallaglio and Malcolm O'Kelly from the Lions tour were unfortunate, statistically speaking, but entirely predictable. An exhaustive two-year survey of injuries by the Rugby Football Union suggests rugby union is the world's most risk-laden team sport, with professional players on average spending almost a fifth of each year on the sidelines.

The losses of Lawrence Dallaglio and Malcolm O'Kelly from the Lions tour were unfortunate, statistically speaking, but entirely predictable. An exhaustive two-year survey of injuries by the Rugby Football Union suggests rugby union is the world's most risk-laden team sport, with professional players on average spending almost a fifth of each year on the sidelines.

Translated to the common workplace this represents 69 days off per annum, an unacceptable figure for an accountant or an office clerk but a hazard of the trade in rugby. "In a collision sport an element of injury is inevitable," said Roy Headey, the RFU's head of élite support. "The players want to know what's being done about it."

A team led by Dr John Brooks and Dr Colin Fuller of the University of Leicester compiled the England Rugby Injury and Training Audit from data on over 2,000 injuries at Premiership clubs in 2002-3 and 2003-4. An injury was defined as something which prevented a player taking part in at least the next 24 hours' training or match play.

Fuller had undertaken similar work in football, and identified the riskiest part of the game as the tackle a player is not expecting. The upshot is England Rugby's new injury risk management plan, and one of the initial steps will be to apply for International Rugby Board funding to investigate the tackle.

"The tackle is the highest-risk area," said Simon Kemp, doctor to the England team since 2001 and co-contributor to the audit. "We have video footage of 400 tackles which led to injury and can categorise them as front-on, side-on, etc. If we can identify whether one kind of a tackle is higher-risk than another, then it is up to the lawmakers." The IRB have previously acted to outlaw the "squeezeball" (when a player's neck and back are exposed while he is funnelling a ball back through his legs) and depower the scrum, but how they might regulate the tackle is uncertain.

A separate study of "burnout" is under way and none of the co-operating parties from the RFU, Premier Rugby and the Professional Rugby Players' Association could say whether the pile-up of fixtures was increasing the risk of injury disproportionately. "We've got a 32-match maximum but we've probably fudged it when we've talked about 40 minutes or less not counting as a full game," said Damian Hopley, the Players' chief executive. "The global season is pie in the sky at the moment so we've got to control the things we can control."

Attention will focus on the way players are prepared, with coaches under scrutiny given that 24 per cent of injuries occur during training. Clubs will receive funds to meet raised minimum standards of medical facilities and equipment.

Hopley is concerned not only at the health of his members - whose risk is said to be marginally greater than their counterparts in rugby league and considerably more than in Australian Rules - but also the knock-on effect after they retire. The front row is of particular concern. England may fly out to the Churchill Cup in Canada next Thursday bereft of four props away with the Lions and possibly another seven - Phil Vickery, Trevor Woodman, Robbie Morris, Duncan Bell, David Flatman, Micky Ward and Mike Worsley - on the short- or long-term sick list.

"How shocked we should be depends on what the figures do as they continue to come in," said Simon Kemp, doctor to the England team since 2001 and co-contributor to the audit. "Who decides how acceptable the risk is? If you have educated the players and done everything possible to minimise the risk then it has to be left to the participants to decide."

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