Is the sport really putting players first?
World Rugby and the rugby union’s key stakeholders announced the latest long-term calendar for the game with great fanfare last month highlighting the ‘harmony’ it had brought to the sport.
However, it appears to have promoted disharmony with many concerned that the international schedule and the changes it has subsequently triggered actually jeopardise player welfare – despite claims to the contrary.
We have repeatedly been assured that the physical and mental wellbeing of the players is World Rugby’s number one priority, a stance they emphasised as they confirmed the ‘optimised’ plan for 2020-32.
Interestingly, that same statement insisted that “emerging rugby powers integration, commercial certainty for all unions and enhanced player welfare” were the central principles behind the new calendar. That added detail perhaps hints at a different order of priorities or maybe just reflects the extent of their power and influence with club competitions out of their jurisdiction.
The significant increase in matches between Tier 1 and Tier 2 nations was certainly a welcome development after years of neglect as was the shifting of the mid-year international window to July that will allow the Super Rugby season to run interrupted and remedy at least one of that competition’s major faults.
Those developments claimed many of the immediate headlines but the focus has since switched to fears over player welfare, fuelled in part by Premiership Rugby’s subsequent announcement that their season will be extended. English rugby’s showpiece finale will be moved to the end of June but the season will continue to kick off at the beginning of September.
The change will ensure that there are no clashes between international fixtures and club matches. Therefore clubs, who obviously fund the salaries of their players, will no longer be stripped of their services at certain points during the season and suffer the commercial cost and damage to their competition’s reputation.
However, one not so welcome consequence is that leading English players lucky enough to earn international honours can now look forward to an 11-month season.
Premiership Rugby, who were represented at World Rugby’s meeting of minds by chief executive Mark McCafferty and Bath owner Bruce Craig, are adamant that player welfare remains a key consideration.
“Just because we are removing Premiership Rugby fixtures from the international period and extending the club season doesn’t automatically mean the players will play more games,” insisted McCafferty. “We will become more sophisticated in our individual management of the players. But in the future rather than having players missing en masse we can manage that through the season in a way that is good for them, their club and for our competition.”
Adding further cause for concern is the Rugby Football Union’s desire to condense the Six Nations within its existing February/March window by scrapping one of the two rest weekends in a move that chief executive Ian Ritchie believes would, “help with the broader narrative”.
The 32-match limit for leading players will remain with clubs left to identify specific rest weekends but that has not prevented a queue of coaches, players and officials lining up to question the thinking behind the changes to the calendar – and prompt further queries as to why they were not consulted before this point.
Saracens’ director of rugby Mark McCall told The Observer: “If the season is going to finish at the end of June, not the end of May, then the start in September doesn’t seem the right thing to do…It’s not just not having breaks during the season, it’s about pre-season as well, it’s those players who are not getting the chance to recover in the right way, who don’t get a chance to get away.”
Bath boss Todd Blackadder told The Daily Mail: “Instead of thinking, ‘How can we add more?’ we need to think about where the game is going. Are we putting unrealistic demands on our players?”
He also highlighted the toll on coaches, medical and other support staff. “As coaches, you are on the go 24-7 every week,” he said. “I’m not just thinking about the players, but also people like our medics, who are working so hard. We all know the business we are in, but sometimes it would be good to have a breather.”
England fly-half George Ford has also spoken of his concerns regarding the Six Nations proposal. “I think it’s really important to have the rest weekends,” he told BBC Five Live. “You play five Test matches within a seven-week period, and the intensity you have to train at is what people don’t see.”
“It takes a fair bit out of you. The Six Nations is an unbelievably hard tournament, both physically and mentally.”
His fears have been echoed by Scottish Rugby chief executive Mark Dodson who told BBC Scotland, “My view is that seven to six weeks is a retrograde step and it’s a dangerous step as far as player welfare is concerned.”
It is perhaps a little alarming that the International Rugby Players’ Association, whose current chairman is the Rugby Players’ Association chief executive Damian Hopley, could sign-off on a schedule that would indirectly trigger such concerns among high-profile figures in the British game.
But IRPA chief executive Rob Nichol welcomed a blueprint that he believes prioritises player welfare. “We appreciate the genuine consideration given to the player welfare needs of the world’s top players throughout the process by everyone involved,” he said.
We can only hope that the ‘individual management’ of players will ease the burden but it will be respite at best and not the prolonged period of rest and recuperation that an ideal off-season would provide and which is required if the best are to continue to excel.
Without offering substantial rest periods the game is gambling with its most prized asset and risking not only their future but also that of the game itself.