It’s a harsh reality for rugby union players, but the more you play the game, the greater the chances are of sustaining an injury. In one of the toughest body contact sports on the planet, medicos have calculated a player risks injury one in every four times he takes the field.
Wallabies captain Michael Hooper has played 80 minutes a game for the NSW Waratahs in Super Rugby and the Wallabies in Test matches this season. And it’s not just this season. He has been playing maximum minutes for the last four years, placing him in a high risk category to suffer a serious injury.
Make no mistake, Hooper is a rare physical specimen and plays the game with an almost childlike exuberance, never seeming to get injured or even tired. But for a player in Hooper’s position at openside flanker, the risk is probably even greater. The bottom of a ruck is no place for the faint-hearted.
You cannot put a player like Hooper in cotton wool, but you can try to minimise the risk of injury by not playing him 80 minutes in every single game.
The physical demands on key players such as Hooper are much greater today than when rugby went professional 22 years ago. Teams played only 11 regular season Super Rugby games in 1996 compared to 15 this year, while national teams played four Tri Nations Tests instead of six games in the Rugby Championship.
For a player like Hooper that is an extra 480 minutes of game-time a year and that is not including the addition of the third Bledisloe Cup Test, expanded Super Rugby playoffs or Tests outside the international window.
How Wallabies coach Michael Cheika manages the workload of Hooper and other big-minute players will be crucial to their hopes of fielding a full-strength team at the 2019 World Cup in Japan.
Cheika did the right thing by resting 13 Wallabies, including Hooper, from the exhibition match with the Barbarians in Sydney on Saturday and allowing star fullback Israel Folau to miss the end of year tour of Japan and Britain.
The absence of so many big names probably did not go down well with the fans as only a small crowd witnessed the second-string Wallabies’ 31-28 win against the Baa-baas, but it was smart not to over-tax key players in what was after all just a money-spinning event.
In hindsight, Cheika would have wished he had rested rising flanker Jack Dempsey, who sustained a season-ending hamstring injury. Dempsey had just established himself in the Wallabies’ backrow with a superb game against the All Blacks the previous week but his season is now over.
While Dempsey’s injury was not a result of over-use or burn-out, it was a reminder that players play Russian roulette with injury every time they take the field.
Everything the Wallabies do from now must be geared towards winning the World Cup and ensuring players are in the best mental and physical condition is a top priority. While players love to play, a slight reduction in game-time for maxed-out players could help to ensure they are available to play when it matters most.
Of course, achieving this delicate balance is easier said than done, particularly when games are close right to the end like the Wallabies recent matches with the All Blacks and the Springboks, but if a match is decided one way or the other with five or 10 minutes to go, it is a good opportunity to give players a rest.
Cheika will have an interesting decision to make when he selects the Wallabies team for the Test against Japan in Yokohama on Saturday. Like the Barbarians game, the Japanese Test falls outside of the international window and is as much a fund-raising exercise for the cash-strapped ARU, or re-branded Rugby Australia, as it is a reconnaissance mission for 2019.
Cheika may be tempted to rest some key players again against Japan, but if he does certain individuals could be underdone when the Wallabies play Wales in Cardiff on 12 November because they will not have played for a month.
It is almost a damned if you do and damned if you don’t scenario, but if the ticking time-bomb goes off, it could blow up in the Wallabies’ faces.