As rugby union’s professionalism advances, and the stress on players continues to grow, only a drastic reduction in games for the elite players can avert a car crash of seismic proportions for the sport.
According to an excellent piece of research by player agency Esportif Intelligence, England’s players had played an average of almost 1,100 minutes (13.75 matches) of club rugby each this season before the start of the Six Nations in February
Figures for the other home countries were:
Ireland 700 minutes (8.75 matches)
Wales 850 minutes (10.63 matches)
Scotland 660 minutes (8.25 matches)
Even accounting for their grotesquely heavier workload than their Celtic counterparts before the tournament, it is still England’s players who are being called back to the grindstone first. On the back of a Lions summer, the effect is plain to see as England’s performances flatlined, English clubs flopped in Europe while the Aviva Premiership stagnates.
Radical thinking is required – and required soon – or Ireland, Wales (whose National Dual Contract scheme is only just beginning to bear fruit) and Scotland will continue to punch well above their collective weights when it comes to player numbers and commercial clout.
In 1995 the RFU called a moratorium on professionalism. The “old farts” at Twickenham dithered as their amateur game burned. The clubs contracted the players and England have suffered since. As professionalism advances and the stress on players continue to grow, only a drastic reduction in games for the top players can avert a car crash.
The signs are not good. Ian Ritchie, the man who presided over England’s worst ever World Cup campaign in 2015 as RFU chief executive, but was forgiven as the union wallowed in cash, was recently appointed chairman of Premiership Rugby. By all accounts a lovely bloke and decent administrator, but is he the man to deliver radical change in a sport crying out for alternative thinking? No chance!
The blame game will go on and the players will continue to suffer. But who will be to blame when the wheels really do come off?