When it comes to the perils of the five-day turnaround, one of modern rugby league's most enduring topics, only hard facts will reveal the hard facts. Despite the outcry about injury and fatigue, there remains an absence of definitive data that reveals the true impact of the NRL's shortest weekly break.
On Thursday night, Manly host South Sydney at Brookvale Oval in what will be their third NRL fixture in 10 days. After that, following a trip to New Zealand, they will be given another five-day break before meeting the Eels. Trent Barrett has not been left pleased.
Unhappy: Sea Eagles coach Trent Barrett. Photo: Mark Kolbe
"The whole squad won't do anything until the captain's run," Barrett said earlier this week. "You can only train once. We've just got to rely on what we've done in the pre-season and get them on the field. Talk about player welfare."
Cameron Smith wants them out of the game. Johnathan Thurston detests them. Sam Thaiday believes the grind is so testing that careers will be cut short unless the NRL changes course, which it will be doing in 2017 (25 per cent reduction), and there will be further cuts from 2018 when it takes greater control of the draw.
In the meantime, it will assist teams with travel and added accommodation costs to lessen the burden. This season there will be 31 five-day back-ups up until round 20, with half of the clubs in the NRL being lumped with three or more. The closer they are to the finals, the louder the complaints.
Yet for all of the disdain in which they are held, the evidence that suggests five-day turnarounds are evil remains fragmented. Clubs do their own analytics but rarely would that be shared to rivals to create a holistic picture of the problems, pitfalls or even – in the case of some teams – potential benefits.
And that's where the evidence must rise to the rhetoric, according to Shona Halson, a senior recovery physiologist with the Australian Institute of Sport, who will oversee recovery for Australian athletes at the Rio Olympics.
"There's not a lot of research on what happens if you're not well recovered. What we think happens in this sort of environment is that performances can decrease. You can increase your risk of injury, you can increase your risk of illness, increase the risk of burnout or decreased motivation," Halson said.
"It can be linked to stress and poor quality recovery from a mental state, especially towards the end of a season.
"The good clubs will be recording injury data, all their performances, information on how their athletes feel and recover. If they look back on that for a number of years, they might say 'hey, 2016 was different'. Or it might be '2016 wasn't different'. We don't really know.
"The truth might be revealed retrospectively, then they can go to the NRL with hard data and say 'look, this has really had an impact on our guys'. Then they have the ammunition. Unless you have the data, you don't have the weapons to really press for change.
"I wouldn't be surprised if teams are recording it – but wouldn't share it. On the other hand, teams might think they do things better with their sports science and not mind five days between games."
Getting the metrics on the cause of poor performances in team sports remains a tricky science. In a sport like swimming, Halson says, the external factors never change. A 50-metre pool remains a 50-metre pool, hence the focus can be solely on the individual.
Shorter time for recovery may be one factor. So is the available team, how the other team plays, confidence levels, form. The list goes on and on, while teams that win on the short back-up don't tend to make it an issue after the match.
"There are [grey areas]," Halson said. "There is more data coming out on team sports but it's very difficult because there are so many factors that contribute to a team's performance. It may be travelling, it may be the way your team performs, it might be the way the other team performs, it might be weather... there are so many factors. But there is certainly a duty of care for the players. They clearly think it's a big deal. In the NBA, they play three times a week and they travel all across the country, although that's not quite a contact sport.
"That's not to say that it's the right thing to do. We think it probably is an issue but if you don't collect the numbers – and share the numbers – it's difficult to say."
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