Undeniable cloud hanging over English rugby

A decision to extend the English rugby season has been met by a wave of disapproval, writes Simon Collings.

For all the excitement the return of European competition this weekend brings with it, there is an undeniable cloud hanging over English rugby.

Premiership Rugby’s announcement in March that it is planning to extend the season to 10 months by running from September to June has been met by a wave of disapproval.

The umbrella organisation’s decision to restructure the division from the start of the 2019/20 season was to bring it in line with the new global calendar, which will move summer tours from June to July.

However, for international players, this means they would face the prospect of an 11-month campaign. Unsurprisingly, such a scenario has been greeted with hostility.

England star Billy Vunipola kicked off the debate in September by warning an NBA or NFL-style lockout could result. His fellow forward Joe Marler swiftly backed him up by saying he would support any potential strike.

At this year’s Champions Cup launch, players raised similar concerns about the impact of a longer season.

“Every week is a massive game. To try to expand that and make the season longer with less rest period is hard to see, from the players’ points of view,” said Wasps captain Joe Launchbury.

“You need that mental break and that’s almost as important as having a physical break. You need that five-week rest that the Rugby Players’ Association fought extremely hard for the players to have.”

England captain Dylan Hartley admitted he was in the dark over plans to extend the Aviva Premiership season.

However the Northampton Saints hooker did also state that such a proposal would not be greeted with open arms.

“The general feeling is that an extended season is not welcome. The season is relentless and there is always another big game around the corner,” he said.

“Player welfare is paramount and if there were to be more games, then player welfare could fall on to the back burn- er.

“I don’t know where the discussions are or what’s happening. Maybe the Premiership captains should get together. I do have a responsibility as a player to voice an opinion but so do the other guys.”

It is not just players, though, who seem to be in the dark over plans to extend the season in England.

Directors of rugby from the Aviva Premiership’s top clubs confessed at the Champions Cup launch in September that they were also out of the loop.

“No [we have not been consulted],” said Wasps boss Dai Young. “It seems to be reported that the directors of rugby and owners are not onside when it comes to player welfare. Nothing could be further from the truth, really.

“We all want the same thing. The game has to be commercial, players have to be looked after and obviously, we need to plot a way through it for the benefit of the game.”

Billy Vunipola: Warns an NBA or NFL-style lockout could result in England.

The rationale behind extending the season is to ensure that fewer matches clash with international fixtures. This way commercial stars such as Maro Itoje and Owen Farrell would be available more often for their club.

Rest weeks would be inserted into the calendar to make up for the shorter summer, but players would not have their usual five-week break that many argue they need.

“The game is at saturation point around fixtures,” says Leicester Tigers director of rugby Matt O’Connor.

“The guys need a mental and physical break at the end of the season to recharge their batteries so that they can do it all over again.”

O’Connor’s claim that English rugby is already at its maximum stacks up when you look at the injury count so far this season.

A rugby injury audit by the Daily Telegraph revealed 10 of the Premiership’s 12 clubs suffered a combined 82 first-team injuries through the first four rounds of the fixtures.

Premiership Rugby’s ‘A’ League is also being hit by a raft of postponements due to the mounting injury crisis and there were five matches called off during one game week.

There is of course, as with any argument, two sides to the story and some directors of rugby confess it is down to them to ensure players don’t burn out.

“The bottom line is if you have got petrol in the tank to make a journey, for each player, how regularly is that petrol used before they run out is the key to it,” says Harlequins director of rugby John Kingston.

“Whether you play over a 10-month period or you play over an eight-month, nine-month period whatever it may be.

“It is a little bit of a red herring talking about what the length of the season is, so much as actually what’s happening when you are doing that stuff. My job as DoR and the job of all the other DoRs is to make sure the players are looked after the right way.”

Exeter Chiefs’ director of rugby Rob Baxter is in agreement with Kingston that clubs too must take responsibility.

“What will ultimately dictate player burnout is what we choose to do as directors of rugby, and their coaches,” he says.

“This is where it is all very naïve just to think the length of the season is what is going to dictate player burnout.

“It’s not. It is almost the last thing that is going to dictate player burnout. What’s going to dictate player burnout, player injuries, is what we do week-by-week and day-by-day. Player welfare has to be managed club by club. There is virtually no other way of doing it.”

In recent weeks, with the autumn internationals dominating the headlines, the matter has slipped out of the public eye.

But the fact remains no resolution has been found yet, with the BBC reporting at the end of November that England’s professional players want the situation resolved within the next two months.

If it isn’t, English rugby could find itself having to contend with several high-profile players going on strike.

Now that is something nobody wants.

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