Versatility the key in injury hit Super League

It may be early in the season, but injuries in Super League are already stacking up, with virtually every team being affected.

Even at this stage in the season, it seems that a team is only as good as its replacements. A strong 1 to 17 is not good enough anymore; you need a strong 25-man squad if you want to be competitive all season long.

Injuries can strike at any time, and often mean key players are missing for weeks on end. So how do you cope with the loss of one of your best players? Well, you either re-shuffle your team – moving players around to find the right balance to cope with the loss of a pivotal figure, or you simply find a player to come in as a straight swap – someone capable of filling the void in what might be a specialist position.

A good example of the re-shuffle was in evidence at St Helens on Friday night, where Paul Wellens’ dead leg kept him out of the side. To cope with the loss of the veteran number 1, coach Mick Potter opted to move Kyle Eastmond to full-back, with James Roby filling the void left by Eastmond at scrum half. Had youngster Jonny Lomax (shoulder) have been fit, he may have played as a direct replacement for Wellens, but as it was, Mick opted to go with the re-shuffle, and it worked – but only just, with Saints narrowly beating a plucky Crusaders team 37-30.

The versatility of James Roby has been a key ingredient for Saints so far this season. With the hooking role more often than not shared by Scott Moore and Keiron Cunningham, Roby has found himself in some more unfamiliar roles – playing on the wing, at loose forward and now at scrum half. There’s no doubt that his coach must see him as one of his most important players this season, because of his utility value.

Another versatile player has come into his side to great affect at Warrington recently – Simon Grix has stepped into the boots of Lee Briers in the last 3 matches. Grix, who can also play in the centres and back row, has come in as a straight swap for the injured Briers at stand off, and after a tight win at Huddersfield, has helped his team to two comfortable wins at home to the Crusaders and Bradford.

At Wigan, Darrell Goulding has come in to cover for injuries, firstly to Cameron Phelps and more recently to George Carmont. A re-shuffle was called for to cope with the loss of full-back Phelps, as Amos Roberts moved back to the last line of defence, with Goulding replacing Roberts on the wing. However, the return of Phelps and the injury to Carmont, meant a straight swap for Goulding to his more familiar centre position. And Darrell has been able to repay the faith Michael Maguire has shown in him, with a try in each of his games on the wing, and a brace on Friday night from centre, including a stunning solo effort.

Huddersfield Giants have had their fair share of injuries too, but have been able to boast four wins out of six so far – and third place in the Super League table – thanks in no small part to the impressive Leroy Cudjoe, deputising for full back and current Man of Steel, Brett Hodgson.

Sadly though, not all teams can boast such able replacements. Both Leeds and Harlequins are currently struggling with the loss of key players, and have been unable to find their best form without them. For Harlequins, captain Rob Purdham, and half backs Luke Dorn and Luke Gale are such absentees, with additional injuries to players like Ryan Esders and Karl Temata, resulting in a miserable return of only one win in their first six games of the season. Harlequins coach Brian McDermott recently lamented, “If you look over the last three years we’ve had an injury crisis – by which I mean important people out at the same time – and now we’re having one again which is incredibly frustrating.”

Leeds are currently without captain Kevin Sinfield and new Kiwi recruit Greg Eastwood – both international players – in addition to Aussie Scott Donald and the injury-prone Ian Kirke. Coach Brian McClennan believes they have a strong squad, saying “Every team will suffer injuries and we have every confidence in our squad to deal with the challenges we face.” However, despite his confidence, the absences have took their toll, with Leeds losing 4 of their last 7 games, including their most recent outing against the Huddersfield Giants.

Injuries will always happen in a contact sport like ours, so having a strong squad – preferably including a handful of versatile players – is key to maintaining a strong Super League challenge.

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