Super Rugby is wounding our Springboks

Not only is Super Rugby’s format putting us to sleep, it may also be slicing fresh wounds into the Springboks.

According to a new study, there is a notably high injury rate among South Africans in the tournament. About half can expect to miss some time over the course of a season. One in three will be out for eight days and one in eight will be left sidelined for more than 28 days.

The Sport, Exercise Medicine and Lifestyle Institute at the University of Pretoria followed 482 players over five years and concluded that their risk is “consistently higher” than other elite rugby players.

Director of the institute and study leader Professor Martin Schwellnus said that more sideline casualties mean a shallower pool from which the Springbok selectors can build a team.

“When a Super Rugby squad starts at the beginning of a four-month tournament, 50% of players will get injured,” he said. “The issue is that now you get to the end of the competition and you want to make players available for the national team and a big proportion who start will end up not being available for selection because they’re injured.”

Schwellnus and his team have so far been unable to pinpoint a predominant cause for the high rates of injury but it likely comes down to a few factors: conditioning, player management, game rules and travel. Unsurprisingly, 85.7% of the injuries occur in matches — thigh and knee being the most common, followed by shoulder/clavicle.

READ MORE: Lions SA’s only hope at title

The study is the latest in multiple shots of criticism to be fired at Super Rugby in recent months. Gauteng’s Lions take on the Crusaders in what will probably be a predictable end to the competition this weekend. Their path to second place was neatly paved by the format, which allowed them to dodge all New Zealand sides by virtue of being the top-ranked South African side. No shortage of fans and commentators have bemoaned this stale state of affairs.

Despite the advantageous playoff route, reports suggest agitation is creeping into our own representatives, who may have ideas of jumping ship into the waters of the Pro-14. Often their squads would spend weeks on tour in Australasia, a physically, mentally and financially taxing experience.

Waratahs coach Daryl Gibson grumbled after the semifinal defeat to the Lions last weekend that the teams across the competition don’t play each other often enough and called for a change in format. New Zealand administrators have also mourned the increased Kiwi-on-Kiwi violence in recent years, suggesting that more high-level derbies will inevitably cause more injuries.

Schwellnus says Super Rugby is a particular gruelling competition. “It lasts a long time, four months —they play on most weeks. It’s one of the longest high-level, high-intensity tournaments in the world. It’s not like a team going and playing three or four games in a country and then leaving.”

The fact, according to the study, is that South Africa has an inordinate amount of casualties. With poor recent performances in the Rugby Championship, the Springboks could hardly afford that reality. The Lions have been given practically zero chance of coming out victorious in their final trip of the year but perhaps there are bigger concerns going into the weekend.

Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.

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