General The Big Hurt

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From the Sydney Morning Herald.

Interested in your thoughts MattyJ.

The big hurt

April 15, 2006

The very thing that makes Sonny Bill Williams so special on the field is what makes him so likely to spend a lot of time off it, writes Andrew Stevenson.

His popped shoulder surely hurt but nothing like the pain and frustration of knowing he was headed for the stands again, as his on-again, off-again rugby league career encountered yet another hiccup. Benji Marshall, in only his second week back from a fractured cheekbone, sat in the dressing room at Townsville last Friday night and sobbed.

As tough as he is, this was more than Marshall, 21, could bear. Throw forward a few days and his illustrious Kiwis teammate Sonny Bill Williams, still only 20, went AWOL for a few hours rather than face a packed media conference waiting to celebrate his return to first grade for the Bulldogs this Monday.

Both have already won premierships and both are possessed with freakish talents, too rarely on display. Williams has managed only 20 matches from 57 since his debut for the Bulldogs in the first round of 2004; Marshall has fared better, playing 41 of a possible 64 but has endured five major shoulder injuries and two reconstructions.

The busted-up pretenders to the crown of rugby league's next big thing have alarmed league fans and prompted former NSW coach Phil Gould to argue for a minimum age to save tomorrow's stars from themselves.

But it appears unlikely to be age that leads them into injury; rather they may be victims of the structure of their bodies - the very same thing that allows them an edge over just about everyone else on the field.

The possible explanation to this may be collagen, the protein polymer that, literally, holds the body together. Sydney Swans medico Nathan Gibbs explains: "Whether it's ligament, muscle, tendon or bone, everything that is joined together in the body is joined together by collagen."

But different people may have collagen that is more elastic, others tend more towards strength. "Some players may get hurt less because of the different make-up of their collagen," said Gibbs.

Elastic collagen may be a factor in having particularly mobile joints - with that mobility leaving players prone to dislocations, sprains and knee problems. But, according to physiotherapist Robbie Wright, who spent nine years working for NRL clubs, those with such elasticity tend to be the most exciting, quick and athletic players on the field.

"If you're joints are really loose - because the ligaments around them are looser - that increases the chance of injury," said Wright. "What's needed is a balance between having firm enough ligaments to hold you and loose enough muscles. But your classic people that have looser ligaments tend to be the really quick guys - and they're the ones who get groin problems, hamstrings, ankles, knees and shoulders."

Talents such as Williams, Marshall and union convert Mat Rogers are classic examples, suggested Wright. "Mat Rogers is exactly what we're talking about because he has such an athlete's body - and then we ask them to play these contact sports where they're bashing themselves up. It's not the best combination," he said.

Paul McGregor, St George Illawarra strength and conditioning coach, has identified a class of player more prone to injury problems.

"If you look at people who are very long in the limbs, it's very common for them to always get a leg or an arm free and get twisted and turned the wrong way. But a bloke who's very stocky, nuggety, built close to the ground, it's hard for them to get bumped and bruised as much as, say, Jason Ryles," he said.

"We call them the Ferraris because it doesn't take much to push them over the edge - you've got to be very careful with what you do with them."

McGregor, himself a perennially injured player, added: "The elusive players who take a bit more to pull down - Sonny Bill, Benji, Ryles and Gasnier - the ones who appear to play more on instinct, are doing things on the field that others can't which leave them exposed to getting injured."

Gibbs said the only sure way to avoid injury was by not playing: "There's not a player in the game who plays for long enough who doesn't get hurt."

He also rejected the idea that more years in the gym packing on muscle might help younger players avoid problems. In fact, spread across the competition, the transition from fat to muscle had made things worse.

"The game now is more explosive, players are bigger and they accelerate faster so the force at impact is greater," he said. "What the muscle does is make it more likely that something is going to break. You'd be much safer if you had all skinny people playing."

Jason Taylor, league's Mr Durability who didn't miss a game through injury in 10 years, said luck was obviously important but believes genetics is a big factor.

"Some blokes get injured getting out of bed in the morning and others just don't seem to," he said.

"I did a lot of stretching and I figured that helped me but I basically started doing it because I was quite stiff. When I was younger, I could hardly touch my toes. I knew I had to increase my flexibility so I started stretching and it made me feel good."

Taylor, also, was no Kamikaze. "I think the style of footy you play is a factor. Some blokes are only small but they've got no respect for their own body. They put their legs, shoulders and heads anywhere. I found that didn't make any sense to me."

He was also an exceptionally hard worker off the field, often spending up to 10 hours a day with a physiotherapist to make sure he could recover.

Gibbs said: "Any player who's played 200 to 300 matches in a contact sport should be applauded because there's no way they've played all those games and not been injured. What they've done is been able to deal with their injuries, focus on rehabilitating them and get on with the game."

The argument that young players get injured and old ones don't is totally incorrect, said Gibbs. "What young people have to learn is what the old people who are still playing the game have learnt - and that is how cope with getting hurt."

And what they have on their side is time. "If Andrew Johns can do it - and he should have retired two years ago according to the medical experts - Benji Marshall has got heaps of time. He shouldn't be negative," said Gibbs

"The only advantage of being young and getting injured is you've got plenty of years of football left in you."
 

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