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Ulster must learn to live with injury nightmares

By Jonathan Bradley

Published 15/12/2015

Sidelined: Iain Henderson is helped off the pitch during Ulster’s PRO12 victory over Edinburgh
Sidelined: Iain Henderson is helped off the pitch during Ulster’s PRO12 victory over Edinburgh

With injuries at the top end of professional rugby more prevalent than ever, one of Ulster's 1999 heroes maintains success in the Champions Cup is now very much a squad game.

The province wrote a new chapter of a storied European history on Friday night with a 38-0 win over four-time winners Toulouse but did so with a number of notable names on the sidelines.

Irish internationals Tommy Bowe, Iain Henderson, Jared Payne, Darren Cave, Dan Tuohy and Stuart Olding were all out injured - with up and coming fullback Peter Nelson also an absentee - but youngsters like Stuart McCloskey, Kyle McCall and Alan O'Connor filled the void.

For former Ulster and Ireland star Gary Longwell, who played in Ulster's European Cup triumph 16 years ago, the intensity of the modern day game means that the sight of stars on the sidelines is inevitable.

"It's getting to the stage now where you have to expect a significant number of injuries and you have to plan accordingly," he said.

"Irish Rugby protects the senior internationals with game limits, and player welfare is very important in lengthening careers, but I suppose the game has changed a bit.

"The intensity of the games has changed. For a lot of my career I was playing for the club as often as the province; I'd have been at Ballymena every other week.

"For players now, every game is high pressure and the competition to get into the team means you have that intensity every day in training.

"You look at someone like Jonah Lomu, who was seen as a freak in his day. Now more and more teams have players who are close to that pace and power.

"The collisions are absolutely huge. If you get caught in the wrong position, it's going to cause injuries."

With injuries on the up, Longwell, who worked with the Ulster Academy before taking up a position at the Sports Institute of Northern Ireland, is pleased to see Ulster's young players continue to come through.

"A lot of these young players have been waiting for their chance and are reacting well to the pressure," said Longwell who won 26 caps for Ireland.

"There's quality coaching at Ulster, you can't overstate the contribution Neil Doak has made to these young players.

"You look at someone like Kyle McCall, he's been a stand-out all through school but there's always been quality ahead of him.

"He's come in and shown that when you do get that chance, you don't go through the door, you have to smash through it."

Ulster Director of Rugby Les Kiss was quite right when he said there was a huge element of luck, or indeed bad luck, involved in certain types of injuries that his players have suffered of late, but there is no denying the wider figures across the whole game.

It is said that in a squad of 40 players, eight will typically be on the sidelines for each and every game.

In that regard, with Olding and Cave to return in the coming weeks, Ulster's casualty list is relatively modest in terms of numbers.

Cast an eye down to the west of Ireland, however, and the injury situation has reached something of a crisis point.

Connacht coach Pat Lam admitted that he faces a "real headache" to produce a fully-fit 23-man squad for Sunday's Challenge Cup trip to Newcastle with 20 members of his first-team squad currently unavailable.

While the headline grabbing absences of Robbie Henshaw and Kieran Marmion are hard for the Sportsground outfit to stomach, it is the sheer number of injuries that are troubling Lam.

The former Samoa No.8 is of the opinion that increased workload - Connacht are currently going through a 16-week period of consecutive games - could be to blame.

"This stretch of games is really starting to take its toll on us," he said.

"It is a bit of a health and safety thing at the moment.

"I have got a few challenges on me, most importantly to see what that injury list is."

It was an idea alluded to by Rory Best last week, when the Ulster skipper mused that perhaps the lengthy runs of games were the cause for increasing injuries.

He said: "You can't live your life worrying about what you could have done.

"Those boys would have been playing anyway, they just might not have been going three or four in a row.

"It's something that we've talked about for a while, making the middle of the PRO12 more competitive, so we can't really complain that we're getting injuries because we're having to play every week."

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