The Gulf Today - Panorama - - Contents - by Sam Peters

This sea­son has been un­suc­cess­ful for Eng­land Rugby as play­ers re­veal their grave con­cerns about fa­tigue

Time for a re­al­ity check, Pre­mier­ship rugby fans. This has been very far from a vin­tage sea­son for club rugby in Eng­land. In fact, much of the fare on of­fer has been down­right aver­age.

What­ever the end-of­sea­son play-off games throw up — and there may yet be some ex­cite­ment to be squeezed out of club rugby’s tooth­paste tube — it is un­de­ni­able the qual­ity, pace and week-in-week-out ex­cite­ment we’ve be­come ac­cus­tomed to in Eng­land’s premier club com­pe­ti­tion has been miss­ing over the past nine months.

New­cas­tle’s ti­tanic win over Le­ices­ter last Fri­day night was, to my mind, the ex­cep­tion which proved the rule. Eng­land’s club play­ers are play­ing on empty and we all know it.

Few play­ers will ad­mit it pub­licly, but the re­lent­less na­ture of a Pre­mier­ship sea­son, com­ing hard on the heels of a Lions tour, in­ter­spersed with in­ter­na­tional and Euro­pean club win­dows, has led to tired limbs, an ob­scene in­jury rate and some medi­ocre rugby, as squads have been stretched to break­ing point. For many, the end of the sea­son can­not come soon enough.

Last week I found my­self in con­ver­sa­tion

with two cur­rent Eng­land play­ers, one of whom of­fered a fas­ci­nat­ing in­sight into the con­flict that I be­lieve is at the heart of English rugby’s cur­rent malaise. One ex­plained the dilemma he faces on an al­most weekly ba­sis as a tug-of-war is fought over his own body.

With his club — who pay the bulk of his wages — need­ing him in peak phys­i­cal con­di­tion for Euro­pean week­ends and the win­dows away from in­ter­na­tional games, he can be given lighter work­loads or even rest pe­ri­ods es­sen­tial for his body to re­cu­per­ate from the ex­tra­or­di­nary phys­i­cal bat­ter­ing it un­der­goes on a weekly ba­sis.

With, in his words, “limited com­mu­ni­ca­tion” be­tween Eng­land and his club, he is rou­tinely con­tacted di­rectly by his in­ter­na­tional S&C (Strength and Con­di­tion­ing) staff in­ter­ested solely in get­ting him to peak for Eng­land matches. Lay down two graphs when English clubs and Eng­land need their top stars peak­ing and the peaks come at pre­cisely dif­fer­ent times through the year.

“What am I sup­posed to do?” the player asked me. “On one hand I’ll have a fit­ness and con­di­tion­ing pro­gramme laid out for me by my club. They may tell me to rest for a few days or fo­cus on a lighter pro­gramme for the week to en­sure I’m fresh for the week­end.

“I can then be con­tacted di­rectly by Eng­land’s S&C staff want­ing me on a com­pletely dif­fer­ent pro­gramme. They may want me to take on a much heav­ier load that week de­signed to build up mus­cle mass for fur­ther down the road.

“It’s in­cred­i­bly hard to know who to please. I get well looked after at my club but ul­ti­mately every­one wants to play for Eng­land and you def­i­nitely don’t want to be la­belled lazy.”

Two masters, one player. Eng­land’s top stars are in an im­pos­si­ble po­si­tion. Caught be­tween a rock and a hard place. If they fol­low every­one’s ad­vice, they will end up go­ing around in cir­cles. For many, they are do­ing pre­cisely that.

Is it any sur­prise that no Pre­mier­ship club made it to the Euro­pean Cham­pi­ons Cup semi-fi­nals while Ire­land — cen­trally con­tracted and with player fit­ness pro­grammes con­trolled by the Ir­ish Rugby Foot­ball Union — have seen rugby team Le­in­ster go from strength-to-strength and team Mun­ster resur­gent?

Eng­land’s top stars are knack­ered, and the stan­dard of play in the Pre­mier­ship has been di­rectly af­fected. Throw in Ed­die Jones’s no­to­ri­ously bru­tal train­ing ses­sions — per­son­i­fied by the so-called “Bat­tle of Brighton” in 2016 which left three play­ers se­ri­ously in­jured and ended Sam Jones’s ca­reer in the process — and you have an al­most per­fect storm which can only lead to one des­ti­na­tion: Burnout.

“We are all des­per­ate to play for Eng­land and would never say no to play­ing or do­ing what­ever is nec­es­sary to play,” the un­named player con­tin­ued. “You never feel tired when you pull on an Eng­land shirt, but the re­al­ity is that I’m knack­ered. Ab­so­lutely knack­ered.

“I might get a few weeks off this sum­mer but I’ll be back in be­fore my feet have touched the ground. And it’s not as if you can pitch up for pre-sea­son in bad shape. You’ll get beasted if you do. We have to keep train­ing dur­ing our time off. That’s the re­al­ity. Pro­fes­sional rugby is pretty much 365 days a year.”

Cen­trally con­tract play­ers and re­duce their work­load across the board is the an­swer. Every­one knows it. But who’ll do any­thing about it? Three Tests against South Africa, any­one?

Sara­cens English rugby union team.

Com­par­a­tively, Ire­land’s suc­cess can be at­trib­uted to play­ers (in green) get­ting con­tracted cen­trally and the con­trol of fit­ness pro­grammes by the Ir­ish Rugby Foot­ball Union.

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