The NRL has been trying to exhaust its players for years, and now the stars are feeling the heat

The NRL has lost another of its biggest stars to injury.

This time it’s Latrell Mitchell, who will miss at least a couple of weeks and possibly be out until the finals after an ugly hamstring injury in last night’s win over Parramatta.

In what has become seemingly a weekly ritual, fans and pundits anxiously wait for clubs to reveal the results of scans on various bumps, bruises and breaks.

We don’t have enough time or space to mark all the injuries, but the NRL’s website is keeping its growing list updated, with some teams’ casualty wards genuinely staggering to look at.

Most years you’ll see a host of names you barely recognise, but in 2020 a huge proportion of them are starters and stars.

Going some way towards explaining the extent of the situation, every team in the top eight is missing a genuine lynchpin like Mitchell.

A Melbourne Storm NRL players has an anguished look on his face as he lies on the ground getting treatment on his right knee.
Cameron Munster and Cameron Smith were injured in the same game for the Storm.(AAP: Darren England)

With three quarters of its spine — Cameron Smith, Cameron Munster and Jahrome Hughes — returning this week, Melbourne is the only side that could perhaps be considered out of that boat, but that’s offset by having one of the longest lists.

It doesn’t feel like a coincidence that the table-topping Panthers have very few key players injured, although they are missing starting hooker Api Koroisau and only this week welcomed back gun winger Brian To’o.

Two weeks ago, after losing a ninth, 10th and 11th player from his top 17, Roosters coach Trent Robinson said this was “without a doubt” the worst injury toll he’d seen in a season.

Opposing coach Craig Bellamy, who also lost two players from his starting 13 on the night, described the night as “like a MASH unit” and questioned whether “too much fatigue” had been introduced into the game.

It’s hard to lay the blame completely at the feet of the restarted season with its faster rules, lack of byes and absent representative break, but it’s equally hard to ignore it.

Unintended consequences of speeding up the game

The new rules introduced, not just this season but over the past few years, like reducing the number of substitutions, were aimed at increasing fatigue and opening up the game for more attacking football.

The flipside of that was also supposed to be lessening the impact of the collisions to cut down on injuries, but what we’ve seen this season is the rapid-fire game getting beset by stars (usually those who play the most minutes and handle the ball the most) getting hurt.

Mitch Aubusson grimaces on the ground and holds his arm as two men kneel next to him
Mitchell Aubusson’s injury was a freak occurrence, but there’s a fine line between safe and dangerous tackles in rugby league.(AAP: Dan Himbrechts)

When the conversation turns to fatigue, the natural inclination is to think about soft-tissue injuries like hamstrings, calves and other muscle strains, but you don’t have to be a sports scientist to realise contact injuries can be an unintended side effect.

As the godfather of NRL injuries on Twitter explained, tired players can become “lazy” and things can go awry.

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Take Mitchell Aubusson’s very busted wrist in the “MASH unit” game as an example.

In the dying minutes of the first half he was easily fended off by Nelson Asofa-Solomona. If he was less fatigued, maybe he hangs on.

He then went tumbling backwards, doing a full somersault. If he wasn’t so tired, maybe he could keep his feet.

Then as he tried to get up, he was run into by Asofa-Solomona and the full weight of the Storm giant and two Roosters defenders came down on Aubusson’s wrist as he planted it on the grass. Maybe a more energetic Aubusson could have regained his feet or avoided the second collision.

A similar exercise could be done for Mitchell’s injury, sustained as he tried to track down Eels five-eighth Dylan Brown (who’s also facing time on the sidelines after the game thanks to an ankle injury) only for Jaxson Paulo to accidentally fold his fullback in half after falling over Brown.

All this is not to blame the contracted season with faster gameplay for these injuries, but to point out that it only takes one wrong angle or one millisecond of bad timing to turn a routine tackle into a season- or career-ending incident, so to disregard every contact injury as unrelated to fatigue is a bit simplistic.

The other reason the impact of these injuries seems so much more apparent this year is the limited pool teams have to pick from.

If a player isn’t in the bubble, it takes weeks to get them into camp and then up to match fitness, as we’ve seen with Sonny Bill Williams, who’s still at least one week away from his return to play.

And that’s if a team has the luxury of salary cap space and time to spare. Otherwise, they’re stuck with whoever they brought with them into the land of biosecurity.

So, with the finals five weeks away, the good news is that there is time for many of these stars not hit by season-ending injuries to recover.

But at the rate we’re going, it feels like there’s just as much chance we could be robbed of more of the NRL’s best players before October.

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