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Society Member Matt Duke Leads the Way for Sports Therapists Working in Rugby League

Society of Sports Therapists member Matt Duke discovered his passion for Rugby as a Sports and Exercise Therapy student at Leeds Beckett University. Since then he has worked extensively as a Sports Therapist in Rugby League, travelling the world with the sport.

Currently a lecturer at Leeds Beckett University, Matt is fulfilling a long-term ambition to teach, as well as keeping one foot firmly in Sports Therapy practice with his role as Head Therapists for Bradford Bulls Rugby League. Matt sees the development of the next generation of Rugby League Sports Therapists as an important part of his role at Bradford Bulls and, with the club, has developed placements and internships designed to provide a more rounded and hands-on experience of life as a Sports Therapist.

We caught up with him to learn more about his inspirational journey.

When you signed up for your undergraduate course at Leeds Metropolitan University (now known as Leeds Beckett) did you see yourself working in Rugby League or as a Lecturer? What were your ambitions?

When I first enrolled on to the course my ambitions at the time were to work for a sporting team and at some point teach. I remember during one of the first lectures my lecturer went around the room and asked everyone where they saw themselves in five years. Everyone answered ‘work in sport’ or ‘have their own clinic’. I was the only one who said to teach. But through placements it soon became clear that I loved working in Rugby, both Union and League. The diversity you see within rugby sets you up for pretty much any situation. With the contact element, cardio vascular element along with the pace and technique involved within the sport, it opens up players to a broad spectrum of injuries from broken legs and orbital floor fractures to sprained thumbs and ankles. The vast spectrum of injuries you come across makes every day a unique experience.

You have worked with a number of different Rugby League teams from the university side through to the England team. Tell us how it came about first with the university side? Why the Rugby League team? Do you play or have a passion for the sport?

I have been involved with Leeds Beckett, Great Britain Academics, GB pioneers, England Student’s, Leeds Rhinos, Queensland Cowboys and now Bradford Bulls Rugby League teams. I first got involved with Rugby League through a colleague of mine from Rugby Union. They needed help with the university and I happily obliged. Since that moment, doors opened up for me within the student game starting with the tour to South Africa with Great Britain Academics. As part of my Masters, I went on placement at Leeds Rhinos and stayed there for 6 years. It is from this placement that I became involved with the full England Senior side cumulating in the 2015 tri series win over New Zealand. Also I was asked to work with the Queensland Cowboys in 2015 when they came over from Australia for the World Club Challenge against Leeds Rhinos. I followed rugby as a child but never really got involved in playing it. But since being involved in rugby, my passion for anything related to rugby has increased massively.

How did the role with England University students come about? Tell us about your tour to Australia.

I had been involved with student Rugby League for 6 years and I was given a heads up that one of the physiotherapists who was due to go, couldn’t. The position went out to interview and I applied. I had to go through several interviews but was eventually offered the position. The tour was to Australia for the Student World Cup. For two and a half weeks, a Physiotherapist and I supported the team in their quest for world cup glory. Games were every other day so recovery was paramount as well as making sure player safety was taken in to account. My role was to organise the ordering and logistics of the medical equipment, treat the players, and run the pitch as Head Trainer, assessing injuries on field and deciding whether they need to be removed from play.  

You have also toured internationally with other sides. Can you tell us about them?

I have had 4 trips abroad with Rugby League to South Africa, Bosnia, Hungary and Australia. They were with Great Britain Academicals, Great Britain Pioneers (2 tours) and England Students respectively. Each tour involved treating players, managing recovery and the logistics of medical equipment. The tours were amazing to be part of and each place is a fantastic place to visit! The tour to South Africa was a tri series. The Bosnia and Hungary tours were designed to develop Rugby League in different countries, spreading the game across the world and the Australia trip was for the Student World Cup.

Your lecturing role started in 2014 – what made you move into lecturing?

I had always planned to get into lecturing. I found during my studies that I enjoyed the presentations and public speaking. I am also realistic enough to know that I am not going to run onto a rugby pitch for the next 50 years so I saw lecturing as a finishing point in my career. However, when I finished my Master’s Degree, I was offered a part time role within the university therefore getting into lecturing way before I planned – but I haven’t looked back since. Initially it was to supervise the students in the university injury and massage clinics we run. Now, I am still involved with the injury clinic, but have more contact time teaching the students. Human Anatomy, Sports Trauma and the business modules are the main modules I have been involved with. Lecturing is such a rewarding career path. I see in the students where I used to be and draw upon my own experiences to try and make them as good as, if no surpass myself.  

You are now Head Therapist at Bradford Bulls – how do you split your time between rugby and lecturing?

Bradford Bulls and Leeds Beckett have both been incredibly supportive allowing me to fulfil both roles. Bradford encourages development and Leeds Beckett is proud to have one of (if not the first) graduate sports therapist to be head of a medical department in professional Rugby League as a lecturer at their university. Don’t get me wrong, it is hard work and long hours but I couldn’t see myself doing anything else. I am happy to be working 6 and a half days a week because I am doing a job that I love. Teaching in a morning, rugby training on an afternoon with games on a weekend, who could ask for more!

Bradford Bulls have gone from being a super league team to being liquidated in 2017. Staff and coaches were made redundant. It must have been a torrid time for the club. Tell us how your role at the club came about. Did you start after or before that happened?

I joined Bradford Bulls this current season after administration and relegation from the Championship last year. I caught wind of the job opportunity via connections I have made during my career and went in for an interview. Having sat down with the hierarchy at the club it was clear to me that the club was in a strong position and united in the goal to get such a great club back to where it belongs. So I took on the job of developing the medical department. I work alongside Aaron Scholes, another Leeds Beckett Alumni in Sport and Exercise Therapy, and the medical department is thriving with over 100+ players in our care, and new equipment and processes in place to identify, maintain and prevent injuries occurring before they happen.
I am in 5 to 7 days a week depending on fixture dates. My role involves the day to day management of the players, from recovery to monitoring the players’ welfare. Games are usually on a Sunday but to work in sport, weekend work is a given.

As Head Therapist do you have responsibility for all the teams?  

My main duties are to the First Team and to oversee the Academy which includes U19’s, U16’s, U15’s and elite scholars. The majority of my time is spent with the first team but I have several days a week contact with the Academy. My colleague Aaron Scholes, another Leeds Beckett Alumni in Sports and Exercise therapy, heads up the Academy medical department.   

Does Bradford Bulls provide a venue for students to gain clinical experience?

Yes, it is one thing that I wanted to make a priority when taking the role. Having been through the placement process myself, I know that doing only soft tissue work provides minimal development to therapists. It’s why at Bradford Bulls we try to give students on placement a wide variety of tasks to do to create a more rounded therapist. We recently advertised internships to work alongside myself and Aaron with the first team and Academy. We like to give students tasks such assessing injured players, devising rehab programmes for the injuries, lead prehab exercise classes and provide pitch side first aid to the players all under the medical team’s supervision. By giving students a rounded and varied experience within a professional environment, it creates a fun and professional working environment which is more effective at developing the next generation of therapists. It also creates the drive to want to pursue a career in Rugby League. I believe that this is the best way, rather than some clinical placements taking on students for ‘free labour’. 

We don’t know of many Sports Therapists working in Rugby League – is that the case? If yes what needs to happen to encourage more to go into the game?

Yes, Sports Therapists are amongst the minority within Rugby League. It is traditionally a Physiotherapy dominant sport. The only Sports Therapists I knew working in professional Rugby League were providing massage at training and game days. However, in December 2017 the RFL changed its medical rules which allow Sports Therapists and Sport Rehabilitators to undertake the IMMOF qualification, which allows them to take to the field in the professional game. However, the Super League and top four of the championship are still ringfenced for Physiotherapy. Since the rule change, Sports Therapy and Sports Rehabilitation now have the opportunity to work in the professional game as clinicians rather than Soft Tissue Therapists, further pushing Sports Therapy forwards and hopefully creating more Heads of Departments like myself.  

What advice would you give to Sports Therapists wanting to get into Rugby League?

My advice would be network, showcase your personality, and do your time. Volunteering your time gets noticed and opens door. Once you have a foot in the door, many more open. No matter how annoying or frustrating it can be, do your time, earn your reputation and you will get to where you want to be.

Posted: 25 09 2018

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