Five months on from the climax of one of the greatest British and Irish Lions tours ever seen, the price of that drawn series is clear for all to see in the form of the players you can’t see.
As talks continue over how the new global calendar will be implemented – which threatens to see international players committing to 11-month seasons – it’s incredibly alarming to see that nearly half the original 41-man Lions squad has suffered injury since the tour got underway at the start of June.
Neither Gloucester flanker Ross Moriarty or Ulster back Jared Payne have played since the tour, while England No 8 Billy Vunipola has suffered a disastrous run of luck in being ruled out of the trip to New Zealand before suffering a second knee injury upon his return to action at the start of the season.
Now, Wasps have confirmed that England duo Elliot Daly and Nathan Hughes face at least four weeks on the sidelines – and a lot more if they need operations – after being injured in Sunday’s European Champions Cup victory over La Rochelle, and Ben Te’o is still at least six weeks away from returning for Worcester Warriors, having not played since October due to an ankle injury.
In total, 19 of the 41 players named by Warren Gatland earlier this year have had to endure time out of the game due to injuries this season with 12 of those currently sidelined for the festive period when clubs are able to attract bumper crowds. There’s an obvious explanation behind the large list of absentees, and it only takes a glance at the fixture list to see why the players harbour genuine concern when it comes to injuries and burnout.
Take Maro Itoje for example. The World Rugby Player of the Year nominee returned from an injury around this time last year, played every one of England’s Six Nations matches as well as heavily influencing Saracens’ run to a second consecutive Champions Cup success, before starring for the Lions in the summer. Just a handful of weeks later, Itoje was back in pre-season training and was needed to play in the opening game of the Premiership for Sarries due to a shortage of players.
Itoje has not quite looked the player of 2016/17 so far this season, and England head coach Eddie Jones elected to rest him from the autumn international against Argentina – only to recall him for the remaining two matches due to yet another back-row injury crisis. After the gruelling start of playing 12 out of 14 possible matches, Itoje suffered a broken jaw at the start of the month and is now racing to be fit for next February’s Six Nations.
Was his injury a freak one? Yes given the circumstances of an unfortunate collision with Harlequins’ Mike Brown. But was it avoidable? Definitely.
If players aren’t being allowed the time to rest after these incredibly physical tests, then their bodies are going to start breaking down. We’ve seem that recently with Vunipola as well as Wales duo Sam Warburton and George North, and in the case of the Lions captain, Warburton will not play at all this season due to a mixture of neck and knee injuries and the need for his body to recuperate after seven years of rugby at the highest, most physically challenging level.
Officials at World Rugby, EPCR, the independent unions, Premiership Rugby and everyone else who will decide the structure of the calendar from 2020 onwards have perfected the art of claiming to put the players first, but their actions say the complete opposite. Unless players are given the appropriate breaks and rest needed to protect their bodies, then expect the other half of the Lions squad to soon end up in the physioroom with their teammates.
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