Irish players reject Six Nations squeeze plans in overwhelming numbers

Ireland’s professional rugby players are coming forward in overwhelming numbers against any proposal to squeeze the Six Nations, currently played over a seven-week period, into a smaller corner of the global calendar.
Irish players reject Six Nations squeeze plans in overwhelming numbers

Somewhere between 75% and 80% of those who have replied to a survey by Rugby Players Ireland — the new name for what was the Irish Rugby Players Association — have expressed a preference for maintaining the status quo which sees the five games played over a seven-week period.

Though the ballot is not yet completed, the overall picture emerging seems clear.

Of the other 20%-25%, some expressed a preference for a six-week model.

The suggestion that one, or even both, of the ‘down’ weekends be removed emanated from England, with the Premiership clubs and the Rugby Football Union putting forward a move that has come in for criticism from a number of other quarters.

The Celtic unions are all resolute in their unwillingness to go along with the changes, while players in Wales and England itself — Joe Marler has labelled the idea as “ridiculous” — have also chipped in with expressions of concern that hinge largely on player welfare.

Jonathan Sexton added to that chorus yesterday while Omar Hassanein, chief executive of Rugby Players Ireland, concurred with the view that asking players to play so many games of such intensity in that tighter span of time was asking for trouble.

“I have a personal view and that stems from a player welfare space and that’s, yes, it shouldn’t be less than seven weeks,” said Hassanein.

“At the moment you have two (matches), then a break, then one, then a break, then two. Those breaks are essential, so from a player welfare perspective it’s a given.”

Hassanein, like Sexton and others, also pointed out that any constricting of the timeframe would inevitably play into the hands of the unions with the largest player bases, and England specifically, but the player welfare argument is clearly the most important.

Sexton was injured for Ireland’s opening two games this year, against Scotland and Italy, but the Leinster and Lions out-half returned to feature in the last three fixtures, at home to France, away to Wales, and then another Dublin tie to wrap up against England.

Even that diary was punishing.

“You come out of it, you need that week before the (Champions Cup) quarter-final just to mentally and physically ready to go again,” he said.

“It is how it looks, international rugby.

“You’re representing your country and everything that goes with that. You’re obviously very proud to do that. It’s pretty hard.”

This policy is nothing new for the Premiership clubs who, along with their counterparts in France, succeeded in replacing the Heineken Cup with the Champions Cup in a move which, among other changes, has dragged the competition forward by a number of weeks.

That scenario left Leinster and Munster with less time to prepare for their respective European quarter-finals against Wasps and Toulouse than would have been the case in previous years.

Any tinkering with the Six Nations would possibly have another domino effect on Irish players.

Hassanein spoke yesterday of how French clubs are “wringing the towel for every drop” with their players and, though the IRFU welfare system is lauded, the Australian believes that the pressure to increase their workload would come under greater external pressure if the Six Nations is to be squeezed.

“If a Six Nations contracted from seven to five weeks to allow more club games in England, that’s going to put pressure on the PRO12 to add more club games to our competitions,” he said.

“Eventually that squeeze internationally might mean more games for everyone right around the globe.”

The expectation is that World Rugby will confirm the decision to run the Six Nations off in the space of just six weeks from 2019 onwards when the body’s council meets next month to ratify that question and various other changes to the global calendar.

Among the changes to be confirmed will be:

  • The move from June to July of the summer test window;
  • The move forward by one week of the November international window;
  • And the decision to bring World Cups a week forward for a start in the second week of September.

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