The fourth edition of the NRL Auckland Nines is only a matter of days away, and the groundswell of opposition to the thrilling tournament has predictably started again in earnest.
An incredibly effective vehicle for spreading the rugby league gospel, the Nines has come under fire from a section of doomsaying coaches, administrators and pundits – led, as always, by Penrith supremo Phil Gould (and kudos to Brad Fittler for lashing out at his former mentor yesterday).
The fact that people are excited to see Ruben Wiki play, at 44 years of age confirms everything I have ever thought or said about the NINES https://t.co/9thkKJ0Wj9
— Phil Gould (@Gus10Gould) January 19, 2017
— Sporting News AU (@sportingnewsau) January 30, 2017
The crux of their complaints is the supposed disproportionate amount of injuries that come out of each weekend-long extravaganza at Eden Park.
But that argument is rubbish – the numbers don’t lie.
In 31 matches at last year’s Nines – or 558 minutes of on-field action – there were four moderate to serious injuries suffered.
Manly hooker Jayden Hodges was the worst affected, doing an ACL that ruled him out for the year. Club-mate Jamie Buhrer had his jaw broken but was back on deck by Round 4 of the premiership, while another Sea Eagles, Jake Trbojevic, was cleared of serious injury after his tournament ended via a concussion on Day 1.
Melbourne youngster Cameron Munster incurred a medial ligament injury in the quarter-finals, but recovered in time for Round 1.
— Dougy’s Daily Digest (@skinnergj) January 21, 2017
The casualty lists from the first two editions of the Nines were similar.
In the inaugural 2014 event, new Cowboys fullback Lachlan Coote (ACL, season-ending), Knights half Jarrod Mullen (hamstring, Round 6) and Rabbitohs playmaker Luke Keary (pectoral, Round 17) were the serious losses.
The 2015 tournament saw Sharks teenager Fa’amanu Brown (ACL, season-ending), Eels hooker Kaysa Pritchard (pectoral, Round 14) and teammate Kenny Edwards (ACL, season-ending) went down.
AKL9S | Nu holding no demons of a Nines return AKL9S | Nu holding no demons of a Nines return Fa’amanu Brown says… https://t.co/iocI79dk6c
— White Line Fever (@WLFpodcast) January 7, 2016
All lamentable injuries, but nothing out of the ordinary when compared to any given weekend of NRL matches, pre-season trials or even training.
Take Round 1 of the 2016 NRL premiership, for instance. In eight matches – or 640 minutes – the injury toll was alarming.
Canterbury hooker Michael Lichaa (knee, Round 5), Cronulla captain Paul Gallen (knee, Round 5), Canberra halves Blake Austin (medial ligament, Round 5) and Aidan Sezer (cheekbone, Round 5), Penrith rake James Segeyaro (broken arm, Round 9), Souths No.7 Adam Reynolds (broken jaw, Round 7) and luckless Warriors utility Ben Henry (knee, season-ending) all spent extended stints on the sidelines after their first serious hit-outs of the season.
I think we all know who is to blame for these Sezer, Austin and Segeyaro injuries.
Thats right, the Auckland Nines
— Random Footy Facts (@footyfacts37) March 5, 2016
Go back 12 months earlier, Manly back Clint Gutherson (knee, season-ending) and teammate Kieran Foran (hamstring, Round 4), Saints star Josh Dugan (ankle, Round 3) and captain Ben Creagh (back, Round 6), Bulldogs pivot Josh Reynolds (arm, Round 5), Warriors centre Konrad Hurrell (knee, Round 5) and Broncos three-quarter Dale Copley (calf, Round 5) were forced to regroup after enduring setbacks in Round 1 of 2015.
Meanwhile, boom Titans half Kane Elgey missed all of 2016 due to an ACL suffered at training, and a year earlier Darius Boyd didn’t make his Broncos return until Round 9 of 2015 after an exceptionally speedy recovery from a torn Achilles at the start of the pre-season.
Newcastle linchpin Kurt Gidley (hamstring) and Brisbane winger Jharal Yow Yeh (knee) had the start of their 2010 NRL campaigns delayed until Round 6 after breaking down in the inaugural All Stars game. Souths back-rower Kyle Turner suffered a career-threatening neck injury in the 2015 All Stars encounter that ultimately sidelined him for almost six months.
Back in the era when match payments were a major part of a player’s annual earnings, Garry Jack famously refused to play in pre-season trials after missing the start of the 1989-90 seasons due to injuries suffered in the meaningless games.
The notion that players are more likely to get injured at the fast-paced Nines is dubious at best. In fact, it could be argued that it is less risky for players to have their first genuine hit-out of the year in the abbreviated format, rather than full 13-a-side trials, the All Stars clash or the opening round of the competition.
By the curmudgeonly Gould and co.’s logic, clubs should wrap their stars in cotton wool for the early weeks of the premiership, ease them into the season off the bench and only pitch them into full-fledged action when the big games roll around.
That strategy, of course, would be ridiculous.
Rugby league is physical, demanding and dangerous by its very nature, and injuries are an unfortunate offshoot in any competition.
Clubs would be prudent to leave at least some of their most important players at home on Nines weekend to minimise the risk – and they all do. It’s also understandable that Manly coach Trent Barrett was frustrated after his squad was hit badly by injuries in Auckland last year.
But trying to rub out one of the best initiatives the code has witnessed in recent times to serve a misguided agenda needs to stop.