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.