THE DEVIL is in the detail.
A quick look at the number of games missed through injury this AFL season – without the necessary context – would suggest sports scientists are having a career-best year.
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To round five in the past two seasons, AFL footballers had missed 573 and 647 matches, respectively. This year that number was 370.
However, the figure is deceiving, because many players with long-term injuries benefited from the multi-month, COVID-19 shutdown period.
Think Jack Ziebell. Ollie Wines. Stefan Martin. Blake Hardwick. Charlie Ballard. Even Tim Taranto, Jarman Impey and Luke Davies-Uniacke, who will return in the coming weeks.
What's concerning is the week-on-week increase since the season resumed a month ago, after a four-week mini-pre-season, as revealed by Australian sports scientist Joel Mason.
Mason is working as a researcher at the Jena Institute of Sport Science in Germany and also recorded the alarming post-lockdown injury spike in the Bundesliga.
The 11 hamstring setbacks in the AFL across rounds four and five this year dwarf the three recorded cases from the same span in 2019. There were two more in the opening game of round six.
AFL game injuries have increased weekly since the restart – 14 muscle injuries in the last 18 games, including 11 hamstrings. 81.8% of these occurred in players who’ve had prior hamstring injuries, aligning with evidence that those with previous injuries are at a higher risk. pic.twitter.com/ZMp64JEp2A— Dr Joel Mason (@JoelMasonHJ) July 6, 2020
Fit for Footy's Leroy Lobo, who worked at Greater Western Sydney for seven years and consulted for the Swans, told AFL.com.au the trend may continue for some time yet.
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"Part of it is building up and players reconditioning, so you'll get some early carnage," Lobo said.
"It'll be at least the next four to six weeks. The problem lies now in the schedule, when you've got some teams backing up in five days.
"That's not even mentioning the interstate hubs and all the associated issues with not being in your own home and doing all the normal things you would do to recover."
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Lobo said one positive was contact injuries should decrease quicker than the above timeline, as footballers reacclimatise to bracing for tackles, landing from marking contests and regular collisions.
The AFL put a four-week contact ban on full-group sessions in the wake of Conor McKenna's positive COVID-19 test, so that, perhaps, delayed the process.
This could be one explanation for why syndesmosis injuries have been so prevalent since the resumption, although they've already been on the rise in recent seasons.
Bomber Jake Stringer, Richmond's Dion Prestia and Toby Nankervis and Western Bulldog Lin Jong all suffered syndesmosis setbacks last weekend.
Jong was the third Bulldog in as many weeks to go down with that injury, behind Aaron Naughton and Josh Dunkley.
Deakin University PhD candidate and St Kilda sports science analyst Daniel Hoffman completed a detailed study of AFL injuries between 1997 and 2016 that analysed incidence, severity, prevalence and recurrence.
There are typically only four or five syndesmosis injuries in an entire season, so the high number this year is startling.
It's all happening despite shorter quarters – 16 minutes and time on – and longer breaks between goals and between terms for recovery purposes.
The problem, Lobo said, was contact and high-speed running were still major parts of Australian Football, so the quarter reduction may aid performance more than it mitigated injuries.
Club fitness staff are learning, too, in a situation they've never presided over before, with West Coast coach Adam Simpson conceding they may have pushed their players too hard last week.
Greater Western Sydney's Leon Cameron said teams were "running the gauntlet" more than previous seasons with soft-tissue injuries because of the compromised preparation.
"You can't pick your team on thinking, 'Oh, we have to go in with 22 but we can't play him, because he might do a hamstring'," Cameron said mid-week.
"You look at history but you also look at the loads the players have built up and that's why it's important to play these lower-level (scratch) games … so when they're called upon they're match fit as best they can.
"Survival of the fittest is something that's been bandied around at the start of the year and it's probably going to be a true indicator."