Lockdown: Why SA rugby players will be stronger and fitter when they return to action

Lood de Jager is one of three World Cup winning locks who won't play rugby again this year because of injury. Picture: EPA

South African rugby bosses must still decide whether it is worth taking part in the Rugby Championship, scheduled for Australia in November and December

Although an ideal Test match build-up includes match play, the benefits of not playing rugby for six months may outweigh the risks of potentially picking up injuries when the players return to action; now confirmed to be in the coming weeks. This is particularly true for players who have played at a high level for several years without a break. These players inevitably carry chronic injuries or muscular imbalances.

That is the opinion of respected sports physician, Prof Jon Patricios, who has served as the team doctor for the Lions rugby and cricket teams, among others, over the years.

Patricios, from Wits Sport and Health (WiSH), though admits some body parts might be at risk when the Springboks enter the Rugby Championship later this year. The lack of game time could count against the players, who are now no longer used to full-blown action, but it’s not all doom and gloom. Playing domestically for some period, from next week, will of course, help.

“I think soft tissue injuries are likely to be the most common, things like hamstrings and tendons might be vulnerable if they haven’t been match-conditioned,” said Patricios.

“But I don’t think joints will be at risk, as the players have been training properly for a while now, and should have recovered from previous injuries.”

South African rugby players got the full green light on Wednesday that they’ll return to action next week following months of being away from the game and training on their own, in isolation, for several weeks. Following the initial hard lockdown, the players were allowed to train in small groups with contact, but in the last three weeks they have been allowed to make contact.

A Currie Cup-like competition – to replace this year’s Super Rugby competition which was scrapped because of Covid-19 – is set to be held from mid-October through to January and include seven local teams, including all four Super Rugby franchises, while the Springboks are slated to feature in the rescheduled Rugby Championship in November and December in Australia.

Match fitness, according to Patricios, would be the biggest drawback for the Boks, but he said the time away from the game was hugely beneficial, and should be viewed as a positive, rather than a negative.

“A number of players would have had injuries and had there not been this break they would not have got the chance to recover. They have now had time to get over any niggles and most of the guys should be fit and healthy, and well-rested. The multidisciplinary Bok medical and technical team is well-versed in the science of injury management and rehabilitation. Their approach will have been methodical, interventional and individualised. It has not been a simple rest period”

“So, if the players have been exposed to the right kind of match-simulated scenarios in training I can’t see that there will be a major risk for injuries; not more than any other time.”

More concerning for Patricios, which is unlikely to be the case now, and when the Boks do get back into action, would be if a number of players were under an injury cloud. “And that won’t be the case. If they’re well-conditioned, which they will be, they shouldn’t take too long either to find their sharpness.”

Sidelined by injury already are World Cup winning locks, Lood de Jager, RG Snyman and Eben Etzebeth as well as flyhalf Handre Pollard, who all picked up injuries while playing for their respective Europe-based squads. None of them will be able to play in the Rugby Championship in  Australia, should SA Rugby decide to play in the competition.

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