Tim Glover: Breaking point around the corner

Stark warning from the medical profession - modern English rugby is 'asking for trouble'
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The Independent Online

The southern hemisphere heavyweights, who hit these shores next month for the autumn collection, do things rather differently from the English. New Zealand, the favourites for the World Cup, intend to wrap 22 All Blacks in cotton wool during the Super 14 next season while South Africa, one of England's group rivals in France next September, want to shield 24 Springboks from the Currie Cup.

Meanwhile, England's first get-together at Loughborough University last week, part of their preparation for the visit of the Blacks and the Boks in November, coincided with an unprecedented roll call. Abbott - "knee sir"; Balshaw - "ankle sir"; Barkley - "testicle sir". In alphabetical order the list went down 31 names, finishing with Jonny Wilkinson - "knee sir".

Given that the decimated elite squad - that's 31 out of 55 - were down with everything bar beriberi, Andy Robinson delivered an amazing statement. "I have a side in mind for the New Zealand match," England's head coach said. He added: "I feel very positive about the things we've achieved here. We've done some quality work and developed an excellent mindset. There will always be injuries, you have to get on with it."

But those queuing outside the door of Simon Kemp, the Rugby Football Union's head of sports medicine, have barely been playing for a month. Dr Kemp said the majority of the injuries were a consequence of the "ferocity of the collisions in the modern professional game". Everybody is aware that the players are bigger, faster and fitter and that the hits are harder but solving the problem is another matter.

"Players only have so many games in the tank and if you have the ludicrous scenario of exposing them repeatedly then you're asking for trouble," Philip Newton, the head of clinical services at Lilleshall's national rehabilitation centre, said. "If you look after the players you'll get more out of them and their careers will be longer.

"It seems to me that rugby hasn't got the balance right because as a young professional sport it's caught in a vicious circle. Finances are limited so squads are relatively small and that means more games for the top players, who are pushed back into the fray. Something has got to give."

Lilleshall, initially established by the Football Association, is now an independent centre of excellence, although the vast majority of "patients" treated by Newton and his team are football players. This season not a single rugby player has taken advantage of the specialist one-on-one treatment. "There has been a massive improvement and investment in football in terms of rehabilitation and rugby is playing catch-up," Newton says.

"I appreciate the financial differences and I can imagine an owner of a rugby club asking why are we sending a player to Lilleshall when we have our own medical team, but the game has some tough decisions to make as regards prevention and cure. The nature of rugby has changed. The players are the biggest resource a club can have and it's time to chuck money at them."

Last month the Professional Rugby Players' Association - their chief executive Damian Hopley has been in talks with Newton - published the results of a survey of members which drew some alarming statistics: 58 per cent of players were put under pressure by their clubs to play while not fully fit or recovered from injury; four in five players thought the severity of injuries had increased; at any stage a quarter of all Premiership players are injured and that although they were supposed to get an 11-week break between seasons it was more like four before full contact sessions were resumed. Seventy-four per cent thought 22 matches in the Premiership was the right amount but of the Elite Player Squad 77 per cent thought the season was too long and 75 per cent that there were too many games.

Yet 15 per cent of Premiership players appear in 10 games or fewer a season, putting more pressure on the front liners. As a result the PRA say that more opportunities should be given to players from the A League. Dir-ectors of rugby, though, are reluc-tant to blood second-team or academy players with points at stake. They would rather recruit seasoned pros from abroad.

A separate and earlier injury audit, conducted jointly by the RFU, Premier Rugby and the PRA, revealed that 72 per cent of injuries occurred in contact, 51 per cent of them in the tackle; on average nine players in each club needed treatment and rehabilitation every day and that there were an average of 92 injuries per team per season.

Despite a casualty list longer than his arm, Robinson has so far definitely ruled out only four players for the 5 November clash with the All Blacks, Wilkinson, Steve Borthwick, James Simpson-Daniel and Steve Thompson. For the moment Jason Robinson will not be selected. Thompson suffered a serious calf muscle injury during his club's defeat at Gloucester last week yet he played to the end.

As for Olly Barkley, he was speaking in a falsetto voice inside the first 10 minutes after taking a boot in Bath's match against Worcester but despite being in obvious discomfort was not replaced until half-time.

By and large the players are satisfied with the medical treatment they receive although there was a notable exception last March when the prop David Wilson, playing for England Under-21s in their Grand Slam victory over Ireland, broke a jaw. The injury wasn't diagnosed until he returned to his club Newcastle two days later. Wilson, a member of the national academy, needed an operation.

Newcastle were furious. "It's absolutely ridiculous he wasn't taken for an X-ray after the game. It's a shambolic way to carry on and symptomatic of age-group rugby in England. The national junior sides are a complete waste of money. Young players should be developed within the clubs."

The critic was Rob Andrew, then Newcastle's director of rugby who has since, of course, become England's elite supremo. For the record, 15 players from the national academy joined the Elite Player Squad at Loughborough last week and seven of them, including Wilson, were members of England's Under-21 Grand Slam team.

Sickness Benefit: Four helped by the casualty list

1. James Forrester (Gloucester)

Has benefited from a summer off and is the talk of Kingsholm. Scored a cracking try against Northampton last week. With three No 8s, Corry, Dallaglio and Skirving, seeing the physio, Forrester is top of the tree.

2. Toby Flood (Newcastle)

Rob Andrew, England's director of elite rugby, believes Flood has an international future. Given Jonny Wilkinson's endless woes, the Newcastle playmaker, who has just turned 21, has had a chance to catch the eye.

3. Lee Mears (Bath)

A graduate of mini rugby in Torquay, Mears joined Bath in 1997 and set a Premiership record of 57 appearances off the bench. Now a key member of the Bath pack, the dynamic hooker can usurp the injured Steve Thompson.

4. David Seymour (Saracens)

Because of his blond barnet and all-action style Saracens' fans think the flanker is London's answer to the great Jean-Pierre Rives. A touch fanciful but you're going to see more of Seymour.