PAUL GALLEN: NRL players train so hard now they’re almost becoming like Formula One cars, for better and worse.

NRL great PAUL GALLEN will appear on Nine’s 100% FOOTY on Monday night, debating rugby league’s hottest topics alongside Phil Gould and James Bracey. Tune in from 10pm AEST, following all the action of Round Four!

We saw plenty of serious injuries last season and unfortunately, this year is bringing more of the same in the early rounds.

I don’t know the exact reason, or the solution. This is such a high-velocity, high-impact sport that things will go wrong.

Rule changes are obviously under scrutiny, though there’s another issue I’ve wondered about, whether it’s the culprit or not.

The players train so hard these days. They’re almost becoming like Formula One cars, for better and worse.

They are so finely tuned, almost to the point of being brittle. They seem to break more easily. They are so fit, so strong, so fast, that when something goes wrong, it really goes wrong.

A Formula One car might be a high-tech, cutting-edge machine – but if it hits the wall, it’s going to smash apart.

They’re not like the old stock cars, which are tougher and more durable, more capable of taking damage.

I just wonder whether the amount of training and contact they’re doing these days is affecting players’ susceptibility to injuries and their longevity in the game.

In the NFL, there are periods of the pre-season and off-season where contact training is banned.

In the NRL, when I finished in 2019 compared to what I saw this pre-season at Cronulla … the intensity of training was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. I imagine it was the same at other clubs.

I’m talking about the number of kilometres the players were doing in sessions. How finely-tuned and how hard the workload was, both on the training field and in the gym.

On top of that, the amount of contact. In the off-season, it was like they were playing two games a week. They did scrimmage sessions at least twice a week, plus another contact session on top of that.

I’ve talked to people from other clubs and I don’t think Cronulla would have been at the top of the list, as far as how much contact they were doing. I’ve heard stories of other clubs doing a whole lot more.

Maybe that’s one thing we could look at, as a possible cause of the injury toll.

Maybe the intensity of training, especially the contact, needs to be more closely monitored in future. Maybe they need to look at the NFL system, where there are non-contact periods of the year.

At some point, the amount of contact is just going to wear thin on your body.

I think clubs have simply looked at the speed and intensity of the modern NRL and in line with that, dialled up their training. There’s a lot of sports science involved these days, working out minute details like how long the ball is in play for and therefore how many metres per second players have got to run; then training them accordingly.

A lot of the time, certain teams will train even harder than they’ll have to perform in a game, so that when the weekend comes, they can handle it that little bit more easily.

But at some point, the body may just say, ‘I can’t keep doing this’. And the only way your body can really tell you that is by something breaking.

That seems to be happening a fair bit at the moment.

I have no doubt that the intensity of training has skyrocketed. I don’t know for sure but it may well be a factor in the injury toll.

Mitchell Pearce goes down

It’s easy for people to point the finger at rule changes; the increase in injuries has coincided with new rules that keep the ball in play for longer while also speeding up the game.

I couldn’t pin the injury toll entirely on that, as some have been tempted to do. I don’t mind the rule changes, though we could still tinker with some.

I’ve written before about the reduction in scrums, a traditional feature of the game that I still like, which now aren’t used when the ball is kicked into touch.

There’s a 30-second scrum shot clock, so it’s not like it’s stopping the game for minutes on end, plus it just gives the players a little rest. It also provides a genuine counter-attacking opportunity for a team in their own end, rather than a forward just taking a hit-up against a set defensive line, like we’re seeing now with a play-the-ball instead of a scrum.

We’re seeing both sides of the coin with the rule changes. We’re getting that open attacking play that was intended, yet we’re also getting blowout scores because it’s so hard for teams to break momentum when the opposition get a roll-on.

The more disciplined teams, the ones that aren’t giving away six-agains or penalties, are just taking the juice out of the other team. When the weaker team gets the ball, they’re just too tired to do anything with it, while the stronger team still has energy to win the defensive battle for good field position then capitalise by scoring points.

In most cases, the dominant team in that scenario is the team with the best players. The rule changes have put a premium on talent over structure.

The days of the halves playing to such a structured game plan are fading. You need a good forward pack to take the ball forward, as always, but you need proper ball-players who can deliver ad-lib footy.

When they do get a six-again and the opposition is scrambling in defence, they can count numbers quickly in their head and take advantage of an overlap.

The days of a half setting up play on one side of the field for a big shift back the other way … while that still plays a part in the game, the competition’s better sides have genuine runners all over the park. Guys who are a genuine threat with the ball.

Keary departs injured. (Getty)

There’s still a lot of discussion and controversy about these changes, of course. That’s rugby league.

Earlier in the 2000s, when Melbourne dominated the game with defence and fewer points were scored, people were screaming their heads off. Now we’ve gone the opposite way, people are worried about wide-open play and blow-outs.

It’s hard for the NRL to win. What it the perfect version of our game? I don’t know.

Maybe it’s time for everyone just to chill out a bit, sit back, relax and enjoy the footy we have. If the game has to tinker with a few more things down the track, so be it.

The injuries are the big worry, the thing that might force a rethink.

Even more than usual, this competition seems like it will be a case of injuries playing a big part in determining who can win the premiership.

The Roosters were a short-priced title chance whose odds more than doubled after Luke Keary did his ACL. They’ve come back in a bit after their win over the Warriors, who struggled when their marquee prop – Addin Fonua-Blake – went off injured. I didn’t have the Warriors in my top eight and they’ll certainly struggle if he’s missing for any length of time.

Virtually every team is going to be affected by losing one of their top players but again, we see the strong clubs being best equipped to deal with it; the teams that have built the best depth.

Keary goes out, so Sam Walker comes in; not to mention Joseph Suaalii waiting to debut in the Roosters backline. Nathan Cleary is out for a game at Penrith and Matt Burton plays. Cameron Smith retired and Harry Grant was injured at Melbourne, yet Brandon Smith still lines up at hooker. Parramatta and Canberra also seem strong in that regard.

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