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.
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