As we move into the 2022 pre-season, we chat with Head of Physiotherapy and Medical Services, Damian Raper. He provides an in-depth analysis of the rehab and recovery department, their 2021 campaign, and how the players are tracking for their impending return to training in the coming weeks.

From a recovery and rehabilitation respective, how do you reflect on the 2021 season? 

We had new staff starting together so it was a really positive outcome that we were able to get together and able to have a shared philosophy, communicate well and work towards a common purpose. 

We had some significant challenges based around COVID-19 and being on the road for three months, having to work with our suppliers to find new resources, and also new staff on the road to assist us. 

While that was a challenge, it was really positive in the sense that we had to be flexible and maintain a clear focus on our players. We streamlined our program to deliver what we needed to deliver to our players with what we had. 

We had some positives outcomes from players who had significant injuries in 2020, such as Isaac Heeney and Lance Franklin. They both worked really hard over the off-season and pre-season and they had good seasons in terms of availability as a result of the hard work they put in. 

Isaac Heeney enjoyed a stellar campaign after a tough run with injury in 2020.

We also had some disappointing outcomes with some players who were injured throughout the year, mainly Sam Naismith, who had a recurrence of his ACL injury, and also Sam Reid and Lewis Melican who were out for extended periods. 

We had some younger players such as Errol Gulden, Chad Warner and Braeden Campbell who had lower leg injuries, so that leaves with areas for improvement for 2022. 

Can you provide an overview of how the players have been keeping fit and healthy during off-season? 

We ask our players to remain active for 3-4 weeks by doing things such as bushwalking, surfing, golf, and basketball, just so they keep moving and remain as healthy as they can. 

They are even allowed to go for a run and go to the gym if they want to but there was nothing formally prescribed for them to follow. Off the back of that, we commence them on a running and weights program. 


Initially the program was designed to get them moving again and develop some basic strength and exercise patterns into their daily routine. 

That has now become more complex over the last month - from a running standpoint it's now about building some speed and acceleration into their program and then asking the guys to get the footy in their hands and get with team-mates to replicate some football specific movements.

What are some of the key factors that help you tailor off-season programs for different players?

There are multiple factors that help determine how a program looks for a particular player. Age is an obvious one where we have some players who are at different stages of their athletic development. 

Past history of injury is another one that we consider, so any players with some sort of injury will often have less training or train on different days relative to the main group. 

Younger players with injury or a previous, like those who we spoke about previously, will do less training and won't run for consecutive days in comparison to the main training group. 

We also speak with the coaching staff and ask what they want to see in the playing group and what the main areas of improvement are for particular players. 

Then we also look at a player's area of weakness. This follows from the screening process the players undertake and we give them a program to help address that specific area over the off-season.

We had a few players who finished the season with injury, can you provide an update on their recovery?

Nick Blakey 

Nick is now eight weeks post-surgery and he has been reviewed by the surgeon who is happy with his progress. He is in the gym doing weights and some balance exercises and will commence running at 10 weeks after his operation. 

The focus with him is not necessarily based on how quickly we can get him back to running, but rather making sure that when he does return to running that he has got good strength, balance and range of motion to help avoid any deficits he may have that when he gets back into training. 

Nick Blakey impressed in his mid-season move to half-back

Callum Mills 

Callum missed our Elimination Final with Achilles tendon pain, and he's had a six-week block of developing strength in his calf and Achilles and that time has also allowed the pain to settle down. 

He's now walking around pain-free and we expect him to gradually build up his running base when he returns for the pre-Christmas training block. is on a six-week build towards running, so we're hoping he will commence running around the start of December  

Sam Naismith 

Sam had his second ACL reconstruction at the start of October and is going as expected, but it is early days for him. 

He's working on getting a range of motion with his knee and trying to get his bulk back as a result of losing a lot of muscle due to the operation. 

Will Hayward 

Will had AC joint surgery in his shoulder at the start of the off-season and he is going really well. He is back in the gym and doing everything normally. 

However, he hasn't tested his shoulder with any contact but he has essentially fully recovered.  

Hayden McLean 

Hayden has recovered from his MCL injury and is doing an off-season program without any complications.

What are some of the challenges you face when treating players during off-season?

There are multiple challenges when it comes to looking after players over the off-season. 

Location is one as we have some players in WA, SA, Victoria and some still in Sydney. 

The players in Sydney have been really good - they have been coming into the club and training regularly. That brings another challenge in the sense that we want to ensure the players are prepared to attack the new season. 

We don't want them to get to the new season after being at the club for a long period of time, which would run the risk of them feeling like they're not rested physically and mentally.   

For those who aren't in the club, the challenge is not being able to see them in person and having to prescribe them with the correct program remotely. 

We need to make sure they're doing their exercises appropriately and according to the program - we don't want them to be working at an intensity that's too high for what has been given as that poses the risk of injury. 

Access to facilities is another. We want to ensure that players are able to recover appropriately after training but then also have good access to gyms, running surfaces, fields, and making sure we are keeping them in the best routine possible. 

Ultimately, we want to give players the best care possible so it's also about making sure they're aware that they can reach out to us whenever they like. We want to be approachable and make them feel they can ask for help or guidance in the event they have an issue.

From a rehabilitation and recovery point of view, how did you overcome the challenges of COVID-19 throughout the 2021 season?

In regard to the 2021 season, we tried to operate as normal as possible. 

In saying that, the reality was that it was a challenge to keep things the way we wanted considering we do have a fantastic set up at the SCG from a facility standpoint and operational standpoint as-well.  

There were challenges in trying to replicate that in our daily training and working environment. There were challenges from a staffing perspective and we needed to provide the players with all the resources they needed to recover from games and injury.  

We were very lucky to have assistance from staff all around Australia which enabled us to provide the players with the best care possible. 

We had doctors from Geelong and Melbourne Demons assist us for match coverage, and trained at facilities such as those at Collingwood, Melbourne, Essendon and Xaviaer College.

What is the primary focus for players during the off-season and what do you want to see from them when they return to pre-season training?

In pre-season we will be working with the coaching staff to determine what we they want to achieve in that period. 

A lot of that involves getting to football training early on in pre-season. There are different models across the AFL where some teams may focus on conditioning leading into Christmas, but we want be in a position to train football from the first day of pre-season. 

That requires players to be really fit when they return and that comes from having completed the baseline conditioning work and improved their aerobic capacity. 

But then we also want to see that they are prepared for the training that is going to come. We want to see they are healthy, strong in their change of direction work and have practiced football specific movements to help prepare for the demands of pre-season training.