The Positive Side of Injury

by Murray Kinsella

When professional athletes are asked what the worst thing about making a living from sport is, they invariably mention injury. Rugby is no different.

A long-term spell on the sidelines is not only hugely frustrating; it can also signal the beginning of decline. A bad injury can rob vital pace or explosiveness and many return as de-powered versions of the players we know. However, there’s a flip side too. An extended break from the game can be beneficial, as we’ve seen first-hand in Ireland this season.

If you were asked to nominate the two best Irish players of the season so far it’s fair to say that Stephen Ferris and Rob Kearney would be in your thoughts. Back in January 2011, Ferris picked up a knee injury playing for Ulster in a Heineken Cup match against Aironi. He missed the remainder of the season, including Ireland’s 2011 Six Nations campaign. The world-class blindside returned with a bang for the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand and has been phenomenal since.

Rob Kearney suffered a similarly serious knee injury playing against the All Blacks in November 2010. The fullback missed the rest of the season. Watching on as Isa Nacewa shone in the 15 jersey during Leinster’s 2011 Heineken Cup success must have been particularly difficult. Again, Kearney was back for the World Cup, and has been spectacular ever since. The 26-year-old is in the form of his life and, for me, he’s the best fullback in world rugby at the moment.

The most noticeable aspect of Ferris’ outstanding displays this season has been his explosiveness. While he has always been a brute of a player, this season has seen him step things up to a whole new level. When Ferris has made a hit this year, the ball carrier has gone straight to deck, if not backwards. He was the top tackler in 4 of Ireland’s 5 Six Nations games. In attack, he’s been just as effective. The quickest man over ten metres in the Ulster squad, his pace has been frightening at times.

Kearney has brought a similar level of inspiration to Leinster and Ireland’s performances this season. While his stature is less imposing than Ferris’, the fullback’s ability to secure ball in the air, coupled with incisive counter-attacking makes his own explosiveness equally impressive. Kearney has looked looked almost re-invented. While criticism of his attacking game pre-injury was wide of the mark, Kearney’s genuine understanding of the role of the modern fullback since returning suggests that his time out was put to good use.

The key to both these players’ displays has been their infectious enthusiasm. Kearney is desperate for the ball to be kicked his way, allowing him to counter with intent. Meanwhile, Ferris has been relishing his defensive role, thriving as Ireland’s increasingly aggressive defensive line allowed him to rush up. For Ulster, he always offers himself up as a ball carrier. Even on one leg against Munster he led by example, looking for work at every opportunity.

There are obviously a large number of factors in any player’s performances, but when you contrast Ferris and Kearney’s form to that of international teammates like Jamie Heaslip, Gordon D’Arcy, or even Sean O’Brien, it’s clear to see how much good the extended breaks did for them. Kearney and Ferris look so fresh in comparison to the players around them. At times, the latter trio have looked like a rest would do them a world of good. The majority of players won’t even realise it themselves, but they suffer the effects of uninterrupted first-team rugby year after year.

I recently had the chance to chat with Kearney and asked him his own opinion on why he was in such strong form. He immediately mentioned “the break I had last year”. While the injury was hard to take at the time, Kearney is reaping the benefits now. Ditto Ferris. Injuries can seem like the bane of a professional rugby player’s existence, but they can often be a blessing in disguise.

7 Responses

  1. Furbey says:

    Great article Murray! When I was reading it I was immediately thinking of Dominic Ryan, who I believe has an excellent chance of becoming Irelands next long term 7. Do you think his time out injured will be of benefit him? Or do you think a major factor that helped Ferris and Kearney was their reputations at international level, guaranteeing them a look in once recovered, and their massive experience?

    Cheers

    1. Yeah that’s definitely a factor. I hope I haven’t given the impression that getting injured is always a good thing! As you say, Ferris and Kearney had a reputation and were guaranteed to come back into the provincial and national set-ups. For a younger player, like Ryan, it can be a really negative thing. Especially since it looked like he was starting to really break through.

      He’s back against Ulster on Saturday, really looking forward to seeing him play. He’s a great prospect. We’ll see what kind of effect the injury has had on him, but it certainly didn’t help at this stage of his career.

  2. Bryan says:

    Great read Murray! I never looked at it from that perspective but the evidence is there!

    1. Cheers Bryan. I suppose the circumstances of each different player can effect the outcome too. For a young guy looking to break through, long-term injury can ruin their chances of making it. Different ways of looking at everything!

  3. James says:

    Interesting read indeed. But, do you not think it can go the other way too? What about someone like Luke Fitzgerald who has struggled with form for years after recovering from serious injury?

    1. Absolutely! Sorry, I didn’t mean to give the impression that all injuries are a good thing, as players can rest up and come back even better. For the large part, injury is an awful thing. Your example of Luke Fitzgerald is perfect. Injury can ruin some players careers, particularly as they try to force their way into the provincial set-ups, or even at the end of their careers.

      As Furbey mentioned above, Ferris and Kearney were already established Lions who knew they’d have a place after returning from injury. It can be disastrous for others, no doubt about it. But definitely has been beneficial to the two guys mentioned, amongst others!

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