Richard Bath

pre­dicted that Eng­land would strug­gle in the Six Na­tions and he says much of that has to do with the pound­ing the play­ers take with their clubs.

NZ Rugby World - - Contents - RICHARD BATH IS AN AWARD-WIN­NING WRITER BASED IN THE UK.

WHEN ENG­LAND WHITE­WASHED

Aus­tralia 3-0 in Bris­bane, Mel­bourne and Syd­ney in June 2016, Ed­die Jones should have been a happy man. But he wasn’t.

“Th­ese boys shouldn’t be play­ing rugby, they should be on the beach,” he said of his knack­ered Eng­land troops.

Jones was right then, and with ev­ery pass­ing week the Eng­land and France play­ers have be­come in­cre­men­tally more knack­ered as they have been re­lent­lessly flogged by their clubs.

Al­pha male own­ers don’t spend up to a mil­lion eu­ros a sea­son on a player so he can sit on the side­lines or play in­ter­na­tional rugby, so ev­ery week the play­ers have been forced into ac­tion.

In fact, th­ese are the same club own­ers who an­nounced last year that the do­mes­tic sea­son would be ex­tended to 10 months from 2019-20, only to back down in the face of the real threat of strike ac­tion from their play­ers.

The re­sult of flog­ging play­ers be­came clear in this Six Na­tions. Eng­land and France, by far the most pop­u­lous and rich­est na­tions in world rugby, fin­ished fifth and fourth re­spec­tively in the tour­na­ment. In Eng­land’s case, where they won games by small mar­gins in last year’s tour­na­ment, this year they lost them by equally small mar­gins. The two con­tenders in the Six Na­tions [ie: not Italy] who don’t have some form of cen­tral con­tracts to en­sure their play­ers are not over­played, ba­si­cally came last.

The prob­lem isn’t just the cal­en­dar. There are as many club games in the Pro14, in which clubs from Ire­land, Scot­land, Wales and Italy play, as there are in the Aviva Premier­ship.

And Eng­land don’t play any more test matches than their Celtic cousins; in fact, Wales now play more thanks to their ex­tra au­tumn test.

Peo­ple have pointed to the Lions tour and the fact that tra­di­tion­ally the na­tion which pro­vides the most Lions does the most badly in the fol­low­ing year’s Six Na­tions, but the size of the Welsh and Ir­ish con­tin­gent in the Lions at least matched that of the English [and the French weren’t even there].

The real is­sue is what hap­pens when play­ers go back to their clubs. Vir­tu­ally all of the Lions play­ing for clubs in Wales, Ire­land and Scot­land got at least a month off af­ter they came back, some much longer.

Sec­ond-row Maro Itoje was back at Sara­cens just two weeks af­ter step­ping off the plane from New Zealand. Aged just 23 and one of Eng­land’s bright­est hopes, his form through­out the Six Na­tions was poor, cul­mi­nat­ing in an anony­mous per­for­mance against Ire­land in the Grand Slam game.

“Maro Itoje looked out on his feet and not the same player who played against New Zealand last sum­mer,” said Sir Clive Wood­ward. “You can’t over­state what hap­pened on the Lions tour, it’s taken its toll on them. Ev­ery time the Lions toured, the way our play­ers have to play so many games for their clubs, it meant you would have a bad year and the stats tell you that.”

Sir Clive doesn’t al­ways get it right, but he’s un­de­ni­ably got a point. The eas­i­est way to il­lus­trate how much more rugby the English play­ers have played than ev­ery­one else is to take the case of the two first-fives who played at Twick­en­ham on the last day of the Six Na­tions.

On one side you had Ire­land’s Johnny Sex­ton, who be­tween the start of the sea­son on Septem­ber 2 had played 435 min­utes for his club, Le­in­ster.

Fac­ing him was Eng­land’s Owen Far­rell, who in the same pe­riod had played 1,084 min­utes for his club Sara­cens. Dur­ing that pe­riod Sex­ton played the full 80 min­utes just twice com­pared with 16 times for Far­rell.

Nor is the dis­par­ity be­tween Sex­ton and Far­rell an anom­aly. In vir­tu­ally all po­si­tions Eng­land [and France] play­ers have played sig­nif­i­cantly more game time than their non-English coun­ter­parts.

By the end of the Six Na­tions, Eng­land tight­head prop Dan Cole, for in­stance, had played 1,070 min­utes of club rugby com­pared with Ir­ish op­po­nent Tadgh Fur­long’s 644.

Nor is it just about the amount of wear and tear on bod­ies. Play­ing too of­ten means that play­ers strug­gle to be men­tally sharp for big games. In Eng­land, far too many play­ers are se­lected for their clubs on the weeks be­tween Six Na­tions tests, or in the week be­fore big Euro­pean games.

The week af­ter Eng­land’s au­tumn in­ter­na­tion­als, 28 of the play­ers who went into Eng­land camp – where, un­help­fully, they were beasted by Ed­die Jones – played for their clubs the week be­fore Cham­pi­ons Cup and Chal­lenge Cup games, with just one Eng­land player be­ing rested.

Faced with fresher op­po­nents, the English teams per­formed woe­fully in Europe: of the seven English clubs in the Cham­pi­ons Cup, only one made the play-offs; of the five clubs in Chal­lenge Cup, only two reached the knock­out stages.

Maro Itoje looked out on his feet and not the same player who played against New Zealand last sum­mer. You can’t over­state what hap­pened on the Lions tour, it’s taken its toll on them.’ Sir Clive Wood­ward

Of the 10 pools in the two com­pe­ti­tions, none was won by an English club.

Le­ices­ter Tigers were beaten home and away by Mun­ster, and their cap­tain Tom Youngs thought it was no co­in­ci­dence that the Ir­ish prov­ince had rested nine of their 11 in­ter­na­tion­als the week be­fore. In­deed, across all four Ir­ish prov­inces, ex­actly twice as many Ire­land play­ers were rested by their clubs as English play­ers.

“Men­tally that rest prob­a­bly does [make a dif­fer­ence],” he said. “You freshen up a lit­tle bit and you be­come a lit­tle bit more hun­gry af­ter a week off. You feel: ‘Here we go, let’s rip in now.’ Your body gets a lit­tle bit of a rest. But more than that, your mind gets a rest. But that’s how they run their game and we run ours dif­fer­ently, that’s how it is.

“I love play­ing for Le­ices­ter and any op­por­tu­nity I will get, I’ll take it. It’s the way it is but the game’s get­ting more phys­i­cal, the ex­pec­ta­tion is more and more. We do try and man­age things dur­ing the week. Train­ing is a lot dif­fer­ent to how it was when I first started be­cause the games are that much harder. You can’t keep go­ing to the well be­cause it will be empty when you get to the end of the sea­son.”

This sea­son, Ire­land cap­tain Rory Best has played just three con­sec­u­tive matches be­cause the 35-year-old is rested so of­ten.

He says that be­ing able to take a step back al­lows you to see the wheat from the chaff and get your­self up for the big games.

“Ul­ti­mately, we get to play in the big games, the in­ter-pros and Europe, and we get to be fresh for those,” he said.

“Week­ends off ev­ery now and again, just give you a lit­tle bit of a freshen up – men­tally as much as any­thing. Oth­er­wise you might go week on week on week with­out re­ally dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing be­tween big games and other games.”

Nor is it just the Ir­ish who are rest­ing their play­ers ju­di­ciously so that they are fit for the big games.

In Wales there is chat that play­ers such as Sam War­bur­ton could have played in this Six Na­tions, but was rested as part of a pro­gramme de­signed to see him peak for next year’s World Cup.

The the­ory goes that with Wales play­ing away to Eng­land and Ire­land, this was never go­ing to be their year, so af­ter the bat­ter­ing of the Lions, let some of the most valu­able play­ers have an in­valu­able break and bring through guys like Josh Na­vidi and Aaron Shin­gler.

It’s the same in Scot­land, whose play­ers vir­tu­ally all play for Glas­gow or Ed­in­burgh. There is a rule that no Scot­land player can play more than four games in a row, and the coaches of both teams – like all the coaches at Welsh and Ir­ish clubs - know that their role is to work to­wards a suc­cess­ful na­tional side.

That’s why, on the first week­end af­ter the Six Na­tions, vir­tu­ally ev­ery Eng­land player – and non-English play­ers like Wales wing Ge­orge North who ply their trade in Eng­land – was in ac­tion in the Aviva Premier­ship, while vir­tu­ally ev­ery non-English in­ter­na­tional was given the week off.

For clubs like Glas­gow who hadn’t made it to the knock­out stages of the Cham­pi­ons Cup or Chal­lenge Cup, that meant a mid-sea­son break of three weeks for their Scot­land in­ter­na­tion­als.

“The guys we’ve left out [for the first game af­ter the Six Na­tions] played a big part in the Six Na­tions cam­paign, which meant eight weeks of in­ten­sive train­ing and play­ing,” said Glas­gow coach Dave Ren­nie, who de­cided not to pick 10 of his Scot­land reg­u­lars.

“But even the weeks when they don’t play, they’re still train­ing and our boys are play­ing a full part in it, so they’ve had a heavy load. We’ve given them most of this week off, they’ll have all of next week off as well. It’s a real hon­our to rep­re­sent your coun­try and we want to make Scot­land as strong as pos­si­ble.”

The ob­vi­ous con­clu­sion is that Eng­land and France should fol­low the lead of most of the rest of the rugby world and have cen­tral con­tracts for their top play­ers.

That, how­ever, seems van­ish­ingly un­likely. Af­ter a pe­riod of bloody civil war be­tween the clubs and union, the pri­macy of con­tract in Eng­land [and France] rests with the clubs.

In Eng­land’s case, they are just 18 months into an eight-year-deal which runs un­til 2024 and takes in the 2023 World Cup.

As Stephen Brown, the chief ex­ec­u­tive of the English RFU said: “The clubs won’t rip up the agree­ment and give the RFU con­trol of the play­ers… there is no will on ei­ther side to change that agree­ment.”

I won­der whether you can fit all of that onto the tomb­stone of English rugby’s 2019 World Cup cam­paign.

The Ir­ish looked re­mark­ably live­lier than Eng­land in the fi­nal Six Na­tions game of 2017. FRESH PRINCE

Maro Itoje was ex­cel­lent while in New Zealand with the Lions but has lost his edge since. THE SHADOW

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