Lions' injury count testament to rugby's physicality

Anyone doubting the physicality of modern-day rugby union must only look at the British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa as witness to the brutal demands made on players’ bodies.

After Saturday’s second Test, lost 28-25 against the Springboks, four Lions ended up in hospital with three ruled out of the third Test at Ellis Park.

Included among those were Brian O’Driscoll (concussion), and Welsh prop duo Gethin Jenkins (broken cheekbone) and Adam Jones, who suffered a dislocated shoulder after a dangerous Bakkies Botha charge during the match.

Speaking after last weekend’s Test, Lions head coach Ian McGeechan admitted that he winced at the ferocity of impacts, even on the training pitch.

“If I get near half the stuff they do I think it looks too brutal for me,” said McGeechan, who played centre for Scotland and the Lions in the 1970s—entertaining stuff with its fair share of big men but a million miles away from the professional era of rugby union.

“But it’s intensity. You’ve got to play in a Lions Test to understand the level of commitment that goes into them.

“It’s for two reasons: our players still see the Lions jersey as the biggest jersey they can wear but our opponents also think the biggest Test they can play is a Lions Test.

“That has a huge amount of credibility on both sides and that’s why there’s such committment and devotion around a Lions Test series and that’s been shown in both these matches.”

O’Driscoll joins a long list of players who have had their tour cut short because of injury.

Wales full-back Lee Byrne was last week sent home with a damaged thumb while Scotland prop Euan Murray was ruled out with an ankle injury in the build-up to the first Test, which the Lions lost 26-21. Welsh winger Leigh Halfpenny was a late arrival but didn’t last long with his ongoing thigh injury.

The Lions have also seen Wales captain Ryan Jones come and go almost immediately after being diagnosed with concussion on arrival in South Africa to replace Irishman Stephen Ferris (knee).

Indeed, Tom Shanklin (shoulder), Ireland scrum-half Tomas O’Leary (ankle) and hooker Jerry Flattery (elbow), all had to withdraw before the tour due to injuries sustained on the pitch.

During the tour, James Hook (concussion), giant prop Andy Sheridan (back), Riki Flutey (knee), Mike Blair (foot), Keith Earls (shoulder) and Andy Powell (hand) have all had to miss games because of injuries.

Lions assistant coach Warren Gatland, speaking before the first Test and after the brutal win over Southern Kings, compared the rugby being played in South Africa to chess “with collisions”.

“Physically winning those collisions in defence will be important for us,” said the Kiwi, now Wales coach but once captain of a Waikato side that famously beat a touring Lions side.

“It’s a bit like a game of chess,” he said.
“And who does dominate in those collisions and the breakdowns will determine the outcome of this series.”

Collisions have indeed been the order of the day, not least Botha’s controversial ruck-clearing of Adam Jones, something the Springbok coaching staff remain adamant was not illegal or malicious.

Assistant coach Dick Muir said on Tuesday: “We realise it’s a tough game.

“We want it physical but we know where the line is.

“There’s still a lot of sportsmanship out there. It’s still a very special game.”—AFP

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