This weekend sees the opening of World Rugby’s Autumn International window where the top teams from both the Northern and Southern hemisphere will do battle in various ‘friendlies’ in order to better their standing in the World Rankings. Rugby has become increasingly professional over the last decade as a result of which there is a greater demand to see the best teams go head to head in an already congested season.
This Autumn is no different with Wales competing in four tests against Australia, Georgia, New Zealand and South Africa over the course of 4 weekends and New Zealand going further by cramming in their four tests in only 14 days; indeed the All Blacks play France twice in the space of only four days.
Whilst the Autumn International window will satisfy the fans, it will no doubt have a different appeal to those elite players for whom this is a yet further intense period of training and playing after an already long year that included an intense 5 week tour of New Zealand for those selected for the British & Irish Lions.
In recent weeks, concern has been voiced by professional rugby players as to the amount of games making up their fixture lists and a growing injury crisis. This is mainly due to plans to extend the English Premiership Rugby season to 10 months, starting at the beginning of September and finishing at the end of June.
Premiership Rugby say that the extended 10 month season, announced in response to changes recommended by World Rugby in respect of the global rugby calendar, will allow clubs to be “more sophisticated” in their management of players. However, players have commented that extending the season will only leave a two month off-season, which would also need to include pre-season training. Premiership Rugby’s argument that pre-season could be shortened is rejected by players and coaching staff alike who say that pre-season is a vital tool in conditioning squads in order that they do not suffer from long term injuries once the season starts.
One only has to look at the stats coming out from the start of this season to see the injury crisis currently developing in the modern game. After only a few weeks of the 2017-18 seasons a reported 82 injuries had been suffered by Premiership players with Wasps missing 15 first team players and the Pro-14 Dragons 24. Given the size of a Premiership Rugby first team squad, in comparison to say a Premiership football club, this can have a significant and debilitating effect on a club’s season.
It is perhaps unsurprising therefore to see so many players come out against Premiership Rugby’s announcement to extend the season. One high profile opponent is England number eight Billy Vunipola who has suggested players will strike if the proposals go ahead. Vunipola told The Times newspaper that his body “could not handle” a nine month season let alone a ten month one. Here speaks a man of experience given he was forced to miss both this year’s Six Nations Championship and the Lions tour thanks to surgery on both his shoulder and knee.
Vunipola has even gone so far as to suggest that he would accept a cut in his salary, in order to allow clubs to afford bigger squads, if it meant he was required to play less games and therefore extend his playing career. Such a sentiment is laudable for a member of the Elite Player Squad who are paid handsomely and managed much more carefully than the average player in the English Premiership.
Damian Hopley, CEO of the Rugby Players Association, has also raised concerns about the psychological effects an extended season may have on players. Players who are unable to play because of injury, and therefore earn their living, or feel they are being forced to play despite an injury are considered more likely to become anxious or depressed. As a result, the RPA launched its high profile ‘Lift the Weight’ campaign in February of this year dealing with the issue of mental health, an issue that escaped attention previously, but which has been thrust into the spotlight in recent times. The NZRFU has also recently launched a similar ‘Head First’ campaign dealing with “stress, anxiety and depression”.
Perhaps the biggest positive to come out from the current injury crisis is the willingness of key individuals to stand up and voice their concerns. It is clear that the major stakeholders within the game will need to come together and find a solution that is workable and acceptable to all.
One only has to look at the 4 month NFL regular season, to see that less can sometimes be more and that ensuring that the best ‘product’ with the best players available can lead to the commercial successes World Rugby is no doubt seeking to emulate.