Like every other rugby fan – and especially as an English Rugby fan – my heart went out to George Kruis when I heard of his knee ligament injury, which he suffered in training in the run-up to England’s first Six Nations game. Not only is he ruled out for the rest of the Six Nations, but it’s also pretty certain that his chances of making the British and Irish Lions squad is now slim to none.
It’s a shocking blow for the Saracens forward, who was really starting to establish himself as a major part of the England squad, but not an uncommon malady. As we’ve pointed out before, knee injuries account for the most number of missed days in the rugby world – and out of all the things that could go wrong with that part of the body, the most common injury occurs with the ligaments – the ailment that George has succumbed to.
So is the constant array of knee injuries that crop up during the season nothing more than an unavoidable part of a very physical contact sport, or are there preventative measures that can be taken? Well, let’s start by taking a look at other sports that closely resemble rugby and see what their statistics are…
It’s not just rugby union
We can argue all day – usually with Americans – about the ‘toughness’ of rugby compared to American football, but despite all the padding and protection, the most common injuries in gridiron also occur around the knee area, especially to the cartilage. And while NFL players are allowed to wear knee braces that are much sturdier than the ones allowed in rugby, the problems remain the same – enormous pressure on the knees, which are magnified by the extra weight carried by the players. Not to mention the problems caused by artificial turf.
When it comes to the other sports that come close to rugby – Gaelic football and Australian Rules football – there’s an interesting divergence. Both are vaguely similar, with their heavier reliance on kicking, but while the Irish sport has ACL injuries as its most common malady, Aussie Rules’ most regular injury involves hamstring strain. Pitch size might be the key factor here: the Australians cover much more ground, and there’s far more space to cover, meaning the grind-it-out methodology of rugby doesn’t apply – however brutal the tackles are.
Finally, we come to the obvious comparison: rugby league. You may be surprised to learn that knee issues aren’t even in the top three most common injuries: in reverse order, it’s dead legs, ankle damage and shoulder dislocations. Maybe it’s because of the six-tackle rule: maybe the faster pace and the higher impact of those limited tackles has something to do with it.
So, after taking all these facts on board, what does that tell us the spate of injuries to the knee in the Union code? It’s clear that an expanded pitch, a greater emphasis on kicking and the introduction of a limit on tackles would greatly reduce strain upon the knee – but then again, it wouldn’t be rugby union anymore, would it?