Rugby is a violent sport. And injuries should be expected in a sport where 30 players run around a field in almost no padding with the sole intent to hit the other team’s players as hard as they can. Growing up in Texas playing football, I’m no stranger to injuries, either. But when I asked players on the University of Missouri rugby team what injuries they had sustained playing the sport, I was shocked. However, it’s nothing new to these players.
“Basically, I've come to the conclusion that rugby is as much a war of attrition as it is a competition,” said Phil Hojnowski. “I remember my high school coach telling us that in rugby you're never 100% and you will always have some nagging injury.”
Most players had sprained their ankles at one point or another, which I had expected. There were also a plethora of black eyes and bruised or sprained wrists and hands. Some also mentioned shin splints and tendonitis. That’s where things start to get interesting.
Broken noses abounded, which is to be expected in a sport where players regularly have three to four pairs of knees thrust in the region occupied by their face at the bottom of a ruck. Many players said they had multiple broken noses. I watched Mike Prince break his nose one weekend, and then re-break it the next. There were also several broken toes and fingers. Or in Tim Brown’s case, a “broken hand”.
There were, as you might imagine, many stories resulting in multiple stitches, like Craig Stewart’s nine. I watched Brown play a game with four stitches in his hand and bust them open, going to the medical tent to have butterfly bandages put on before the next game. Prince played with six in his right temple.
Eight players reported having suffered anywhere from one to more than three concussions, with some of the players admitting they noticed concussion symptoms on several more occasions without going to get treatment.
Then come the dislocations. Some were like Daniel Freeman, with a dislocated right thumb. Others, like Douglas Henderson and Andy Martinovich, had dislocated their shoulders. Henderson also dislocated his jaw.
After dislocations and sprains, the most common injuries are in the shoulder region. Most likely due to the fact that the players are taught to tackle with their shoulders, the minor padding they wear across that area of the body doesn’t necessarily always protect them. Some got away with only one or two separated shoulders. Matt Brotemarkle is on the other end of the separation spectrum, having had five, resulting in surgery in both shoulders. Some shoulder injuries were more severe. Freeman had a partial tear in his rotator cuff while Douglas Henderson had a torn right labrum.
If you are sitting back wondering how these players manage to get up in the morning, you should know that this isn’t even the worst of the injuries yet. From the dislocations, we move to the knees, the dreaded ACL and MCL tears. As you might expect with a high impact sport like rugby, the team had suffered its fair share.
Some players, like Matt Drochelman and Eric Wright had near tears to the MCL and ACL respectively. Brown managed to completely tear his MCL. Freeman tore his ACL, had surgery, and then sprained his knee while recovering from surgery. Hojnowski also had a torn plica in his knee requiring surgery. The knees weren’t the only areas that received tears, either. Adam Wright and John Victor had partially torn calf muscles each. Brotemarkle boasts a torn groin and hamstring. Victor also had a torn quad and hamstring to add to his calf.
Then there are the really fun injuries. Players reported everything from bruised to completely broken ribs. Grant Duncan had a radial dome fracture. Eric Wright had a cracked tibia. Victor said he had a broken scaphoid and radius, and William Herbert had a broken clavicle. Wright also said he had a dented kneecap and slight nerve damage in his right temple.
And then there are the granddaddy of all sports injuries, the neck and back. Herbert reported a herniated disk and bi-lateral L5 fracture, while Victor said he had a severe bruise on his L 3-4 vertebra. Hojnowski said he suffered two severe neck injuries and pinched nerve, none of which he ever fully recovered from. Ryan Beck completely broke one of his vertebrae.
While this is an extensive list, this isn’t to say that every player who ever signed u to play rugby was injured. DJ Seidel is one such lucky player. “After playing rugby for four years, I think I have only rolled my ankle once,” said Seidel. “Maybe a jammed finger or two.”
At the time of asking, Prince had told me he had never sustained any significant injuries from rugby. “But every time you go out there, you’re rolling the dice” said Prince. He broke his nose the next weekend.
Some of these players have been playing rugby for as long as 12 years. Others, only a year or so. The volume of injuries tended to increase with seasons, but the severity had little relation to years of experience or position on the field. Every time those players step on the pitch, they could come off bleeding.
“After playing in exceptionally physical games I recall the distinct feeling of being hit by a train. I can't count the number of times I've woken up the day following a game and barely been able to sit up in bed,” said Hojnowski. “Rugby games leave you with a full body soreness like no other sport.”
That may be true, but these players come back time and again after injuries, often before they have had time to properly heal, to keep playing the game they love. Breaks, tears, stitches, dislocations, it doesn’t matter. There is no arguing that rugby is a tough sport.