Rugby injuries and the dilemma of tournament preparation

With the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand only a couple of weeks away, teams are playing warm-up matches. This is standard procedure in team sports ahead of major tournaments but the risks of losing top players to injury are high, perhaps too high.

Last week Wales beat England but Morgan Stoddart broke his leg and Gavin Henson suffered an injury that may keep him out of the tournament. On the England side Danny Care has also been ruled out and Lewis Moody limped off but hopes to recover in time. A round of matches yesterday seems to have passed off with fewer injuries but there are more games to follow next weekend.

It seems rational to want to try different combinations of players ahead of a World Cup so that the coach can select the right squad and test borderline players in a match situation. It also suits governing bodies, who earn extra revenue, and the media who have an opportunity to speculate about who will be picked.

What is difficult to prove in any scientific way is the beneficial impact on teams of playing these warm-up matches. International rugby squads spend a fair amount of time together, allowing them to run through different tactical combinations and to work on fitness. Is the match practice really so essential that it’s worth risking losing players through injury? Even though players will feel pressure in the warm-up games, it’s unlikely to replicate the psychological intensity of the World Cup.

Every player is aware of the risk but they all have to prove themselves to get selected so there’s no holding back. In any case, when you are physically and mentally tuned to performing at 100%, trying to hold back a little may even increase the chance of injury.

At the FIFA World Cup, which comes at the end of a long season, the phenomenon of under-performance by leading players has sometimes been attributed by commentators to exhaustion (see, for example 2010 World Cup organiser Danny Jordaan).

In the southern hemisphere the rugby season is coming to an end. A South African sports scientist argued in June that players reach peak condition after 12 weeks of matches and that this year’s Super XV competition is several weeks too long, leading to higher risk of injury and player burnout.

For rugby players competing in northern hemisphere leagues there is arguably more need for match practice as they have recently returned from summer breaks but these days internationals are highly professional and unlikely to report for duty badly out of condition.

Competition at international level in rugby drives interest more than the club game. Every national governing body is measured first and foremost on their performance at the World Cup and fans want to see the star players. To reduce the risk of them missing the tournament it would be worth at least considering a different way to prepare: short format warm-up games or even a period of time without competitive matches mandated for all teams.

As it stands, with the pressure from governing bodies, fans and the media, it would be a brave coach who insisted on doing less preparation for a major tournament rather than more to keep players fresh.

One often quoted example of success by an under-prepared squad is the Denmark football team, who won Euro 1992 after being included in the tournament only 10 days before when the former Yugoslavia was disqualified.

Any players who get injured in next weekend’s warm-up games may well wonder if the Danish way is worth a go.

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