Premiership Rugby insists England stars will be protected as season extends
Premiership bosses have defended the 43-week season being faced by England rugby players next year by insisting mental and physical welfare will be protected by mid-season breaks, while presenting data to show that injuries are more likely to occur if a player does not play often enough.
In an exclusive interview with i, the Premiership’s chief executive Mark McCafferty, rugby director Phil Winstanley and injury researcher Matt Cross of Bath University said the likelihood of a player being injured rose not only after 35 matches in a 12-month period, but also if the player participated in fewer than 15 matches in that time.
The Premiership had been forced to row back on plans announced in 2017 to run the 2019-20 club season from early September through to late June, after criticism from England players. But under the revised season structure announced last month by the Premiership, Rugby Football Union and the professional players’ association, the league’s final will still be moved from 1 June this season to 20 June in 2020 and 26 June in 2021, prompted in part by a worldwide shift in international match dates from June to July.
England players must tackle a specific schedule with the first part of next season devoted to the World Cup in Japan. Their campaign starts with a warm-up match against Wales on 11 August, preceded by training camps, and goes through to the Premiership final at Twickenham 43 weeks later.
Mandatory rests after the World Cup and before and after the 2020 Six Nations will help players stick to the agreed limit of 35 matches (defined as 20 minutes or more) in a 12-month period. England will also leave top players at home when they tour Japan in summer 2020.
“We didn’t get off to a great start in 2017,” McCafferty (above) told i. “The players got the wrong end of the stick and the good stuff got lost in the mix. For everyone it is a trade-off. I don’t believe we have reached the end of the road on this; we are just getting more informed about the right balance between sporting and welfare needs, and the commercial needs to fund everything.”
The RFU’s interim chief executive Nigel Melville last week proposed an increase in rest time before the British & Irish Lions’ tour in summer 2021 by trimming that year’s Six Nations from seven weeks to six. The RFU describe it as an “early-stage idea” to be examined next year, and i understands the Premiership will need to see further detail before making a decision on whether to shift their final back from 26 June to 19 June.
To some observers, playing rugby union is a job like any other, and if a top England player such as Owen Farrell or Maro Itoje must start training for the World Cup in Japan next July, and work through with a week off here and there to a possible Premiership final with their club late the following June, so be it.
Itoje is reckoned to earn £800,000 a year from club wages, England match fees and endorsements, and most would say that is an extremely good living. Admittedly, he is currently playing no rugby for the next four to eight weeks while he allows his kneecap to heal, having participated in four gruelling England Tests and one club game since he chipped a piece out of the patella in October, but isn’t that all part of the job, too?
Others have a gut feeling that when clubs such as Wasps and Gloucester are announcing their team line-ups for European Cup matches this weekend with a dozen players each listed as injured, something is amiss and a shorter season would be beneficial to players’ welfare.
The Premiership bosses interviewed by i point to a body of evidence that the limit it has agreed with the Rugby Players’ Association and Rugby Football Union of 35 matches (defined as an involvement of more than 20 minutes) in a 12-month period at least mitigates the injury risk, and also that playing fewer than 15 matches in 12 months increases the risk.
‘Some clubs are like a field hospital'
Matt Cross, the strength and conditioning coach and a PhD student at Bath University, who has analysed injury data gathered over the past 15 years – as well as physical and mental workloads – for the Premiership, told i: “It wouldn’t be scientifically robust to suggest what the optimal number of matches is for a player. It needs analysing on an individual basis – an individual’s physical capacity, their injury history, their physiology, their previous training history.”
Damian Hopley, chief executive of the English Rugby Players’ Association (RPA), told this newspaper last year that “some clubs are like a field hospital, with up to 45 per cent of their squad out injured”, but Hopley also admitted there was a worry a handful of Premiership club owners might walk away, amid collective losses of £25million a year, and make 300 players redundant.
The fact is that if any players, coaches, supporters or administrators are worried about the length of the season, they have not spoken up loudly enough to make the argument stick. The time the horse bolted was in 1995, when the game could have got together to design a season on a blank sheet of paper, instead of just making changes to what was left over from the amateur era.
So is there a problem? Cross says: “We are doing some work with Cardiff Metropolitan University, and the players’ association and RFU, around psychological demands and loading. It may seem obvious, but there is a clear finding the players build up accumulated fatigue as they get further into the season, which highlights the importance of a mid-season rest.” Quite how much a player switches off, mentally and physically, in the single weeks afforded by the newly-agreed season structure, or during the five weeks of summer, is up for debate.
Even that concept is approached with caution by Phil Winstanley, the Premiership’s rugby manager. “As soon as intensity levels change, in training or playing, your risk profile changes for injury,” he says. “We have to be careful how we manage those down weeks.”
Mark McCafferty, the chief executive of the Premiership, is fond of saying the club season has barely changed in 20 years, and that the proliferation of matches has mostly been in the international dates. And it is true commitments have increased. But this overlooks two salient facts. First, the number of competitive club matches shot up at the end of the amateur era. And the old 30 April cut-off has been pushed into late June. At the same time, matches have increased hugely in intensity.
Ultimately, one can only guess the change in workload of a second-row forward at, say, Leicester Tigers today, compared with a season in the mid-1960s when the club’s now chairman, Peter Tom, reeled off up to 43 matches. The true impact may only emerge when today’s players are long into retirement.
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