Tiaan Liebenberg, the fiery and popular Stormers hooker, has been ruled out for the rest of the season due to a torn anterior cruciate ligament muscle, which is one of four muscles that connect the bones of the knee joint. It will mean nine months on the sidelines, and cause Allister Coetzee a headache at hooker, a position where the Stormers lack an experienced campaigner. Deon Fourie is a fine player, and in the loose he is dangerous, but it is upfront and at scrum time where Liebenberg will be missed.
This will be Liebenberg’s second major injury in six months, with his Currie Cup season also being curtailed by rugby’s greatest curse. Fellow Stormers teammate Gio Aplon will also miss the start of the Super Rugby season, having a small tear to the lateral cartilage in his right knee.
Heinrich Brussow, who inspired a post on this very theme 11 months ago, hasn’t seen a proverbial blade of grass in that time, will only be returning from injury in March. A second operation was needed after the first in August failed to repair a cruciate knee ligament injury. Fellow Cheetah and Springbok team mate Jongi Nokwe will also miss the start of the season due to his own knee injury, and could possibly miss the entire season if the surgery he had to address the problem fails to do just that.
Injury woes aren’t just affecting South African teams, with the Highlanders and All Blacks’ Tom Donnelly only being able to play rugby again in April since he has to recover from a partial dislocation of his shoulder. This was after another Highlanders player, Colin Slade, who was set to start at 10, broke his jaw and has been ruled out of action for six weeks.
The Crusaders’ Zac Guildford, one of the competition’s most exciting wings, will only be back on the park from round three onwards after injuring a hamstring in a pre-season game against the very same Highlanders. This was after Guildford had just recovered from the very same injury a month before. His skipper, the great Richie McCaw, is already out of the start of the season due to a screw needing to be inserted into his foot due to a stress fracture. He’ll be back in week seven, which in the long run will benefit him at the World Cup come October.
That’s already eight players and the season hasn’t even started. If you are playing Super Rugby this year, your team could play up to 19 matches across half the Southern Hemisphere. There is a 33% increase in matches from last year (94) to this year (125). Players have been in training since January, and will be playing from February to July, and that is only when the Super 15 ends. After that, there is the shortened Tri-Nations, with four games only instead of six, and ending on August 27.
Rounding off the year, two weeks later, will be the World Cup. For the teams that take part in the final and third-placed play-off, ie all the semi-finalists, they would play seven games. The first would be in the middle of September with the tournament ending on October 23.
In total the top rugby players, such as the Dan Carters and Jaque Fouries of this world, could play up to 30 games of professional rugby between now and the end of October. This doesn’t account for Currie Cup games and Vodacom Cup games (which in fairness aren’t as physically demanding).
Medical science has indeed made great advancements in player care and player upkeep, but the steady stream of injuries will continue unabated for the rest of the season. It will be inevitable that a couple of players aren’t going to make it to the World Cup due to injury. The game has gotten faster but stayed just as physical, and from this point of view, if I were a Super Rugby player, it would be very disconcerting to see so many walking wounded, moving about waiting to get fit again to once again put their bodies on the line.
Though they may recover now and in seasons to come, once their careers are over, rugby players’ bodies will be in a state of accelerated degradation, having suffered the rigours of one of the world’s most demanding sports from high school to their early and late 30s. Perhaps science will continue to advance to reduce injury to such a degree that it is negligible. However, as it stands, with Super 15 squads numbering 31 to 32 players, coaches today accept that injury is an inevitable.
Which leaves the Australians in an interesting place. Springbok coach Peter de Villiers has stated that he is concerned about the length of the season, but clearly our friends across the Indian Ocean don’t quite think so. Apart from being generally dismissive of De Villiers’ fears, John O’ Neil stated that Australian players are actually suffering from a lack of game time. With Australia not having a domestic championship at state level, leaving players to play for their club sides when not on national duty, the workload on players is reduced since club sides, while obviously strong, wouldn’t match up to South Africa’s top five sides since the talent pool in the republic is larger than it is down under.
As can be seen, the Australians are the ones suffering the least from the injury bogey at the moment. It isn’t surprising why that is.