THIS SEASON HAS BEEN UNSUCCESSFUL FOR ENGLAND RUGBY AS PLAYERS REVEAL THEIR GRAVE CONCERNS ABOUT FATIGUE
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.