Fast forward 50 years to the year 2067, and somewhere in a Cardiff secondary school classroom a history teacher will ask their students to swipe to a page on a tablet version of the GCSE textbook as they embark on a module with the end goal of answering the exam question ‘Explain how the Great December Injury Crisis of 2016/17 impacted on Cardiff Blues season’.
Such was the extent of the injuries that the club even felt the need to publish a list of those players unavailable each week, something they haven’t done for a good few years. Running from Ulster at home at the start of December, to Bristol at home on the weekend just gone, the injuries have just mounted and mounted.
This last weekend was the best squad availability that Danny Wilson has had the benefit of, with 11 players on the unavailable list. To demonstrate just how serious the crisis had got, there was a general consensus that this was a positive sign, when ‘only’ 11 players could not be selected and there was actually some competition for places.
In terms of the injuries themselves there have been two main issues; the seriousness of them, and who is actually injured. Sometimes you get unlucky that a number of squad players pick up muscle pulls or impact knocks, not in Cardiff though, we only deal in lengthy injuries to first team players.
It started with Dan Fish being ruled out for the season at the end of November with a torn hamstring, before Gethin Jenkins required surgery on a bicep injury, with return scheduled for the end of March. Josh Turnbull then missed a few weeks before having surgery on his back while Aled Summerhill has sat out the entire period after a second heavy concussion in his career.
Lewis Jones had knee surgery which will keep him out until April, Dillon Lewis has suffered an ankle period which will see him out for a few months and Tom James has picked up an illness that has kept him on the sidelines for the entire festive period. As well as that there has also been players that have missed most of the period and only returned in the last two weeks.
Gareth Anscombe has been missing with a muscle issue, and similarly Nick Williams. Jarrod Evans suffered with a broken jaw, Rhun Williams a stress fracture in his foot, Blaine Scully has been missing with a head injury and due to personal reasons, while Ethan Lewis has been injured for most of the season so far.
As well as the injuries, Anton Peikrishvili only returned in the New Year from his suspension, while George Earle has missed much of the second half of this period thanks to his red card against Bath away and won’t return until February. Couple all these with a few of the normal weekly knocks and there’s certainly part of the reason why we’ve had some pretty inconsistent form over the past few weeks.
It is not only the amount of players though, among the players named above I’d suggest that Gethin Jenkins, George Earle, Nick Williams, Gareth Anscombe, Tom James and Dan Fish would all have played major starting roles in the team during the period, while Anton Peikrishvili, Josh Turnbull and Blaine Scully definitely would’ve been included in matchday 23s.
The facts are quite stark. In total we had 48 players in the senior squad (made up of senior professionals and the senior academy), up until the Glasgow game where the signing on loan of BJ Edwards has taken the number to 49. As such, over the course of the eight games played during the period there was a total number of 387 Cardiff players available.
Over the same period there was a total of 111 games missed by players due to injury, suspension or unavailability. That puts us at under 75% player availability over the last few weeks, not only impacting on performances, and subsequently results, but also putting the remaining players at risk of injury or burnout as they are forced to play each week due to a lack of other options.
A prime example is Willis Halaholo. Going back to February last year, from the start of the Super Rugby season through the New Zealand Provincial Cup and into his Cardiff Blues career, he has appeared in 34 matches and played 2,127 minutes of professional rugby in 11 months. Some quite unbelievable statistics.
Now obviously what happened pre-December was unaffected by injuries, but I’m sure Danny Wilson would have been keen to share some workload between players over the recent period. Halaholo’s centre partner Rey Lee-Lo has some similarly tough statistics, with 19 games and 1503 minutes since September.
Going forward though the outlook is much brighter for the next set of Pro12 fixtures. The likes of Gareth Anscombe, Nick Williams and Blaine Scully all returned on the weekend, and the injured amongst them now have two weeks to get right while the Anglo-Welsh Cup is on before league action returns.
By the 18th February, when we welcome Treviso to CAP, George Earle will also have served his suspension, and Tom James may well be available. This is particularly good on the basis that competition for places should bring better individual performances as players are battling for spots in the XV, rather than being picked because they’re not injured.
It is mainly a positive though for the reason that the squad can be rotated when necessary. It was blatantly obvious at certain points during the last few weeks that players were suffering from burnout as mistakes and poor discipline were far too common.
Giving players a week off doesn’t sound like much, but can make a world of difference. Just look at Rey Lee-Lo’s performance against Bristol after not flying out to Pau. A bit of feet up time to refresh and he comes back fit and hungry to play.
With players returning from injury, and those who have played a lot over the last few weeks getting some time to recover during these Anglo-Welsh weeks, coupled with very few international call-ups, we have been handed a lifeline to make an audacious late bid for the top six. Let’s hope we can make the most of it.