Coaches, not limits, should protect players from brutal schedule
Coaches across the dozen Premiership clubs will now be deep into mapping out how to manage their squads given the high number of matches over the next 10 weeks of action.
Within a 12-month period between 1996 and 1997, I played about 50 games. I came home from the British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa, went straight to La Manga in Spain, and slept solidly for two days.
I remember training at London Irish’s old ground at Sunbury before we left for the Lions tour, and my body just felt soft everywhere. I said to one of the players, it might have been Will Greenwood, that I could not accelerate or do things properly. Your body almost feels dead.
On the Lions tour itself – if, like myself, you were not first choice in the Test team – then there were no rest days because you were playing midweek games and then dirt-tracking with the Test side as cannon fodder, and you would end up training more. The guys in the Test XV would come back from the Lions tour feeling fresh, whereas if you were on the bench for the first team and also playing midweek, you ended up completely banjoed.
Leicester Tigers were also involved in everything that 1996-97 season. We had a brutal winter, which meant that by the end of the season with all the earlier postponements, we ended up with seven games in 21 days. I must have started five of them, normally playing a full 80 minutes. The last was an away match against Sale Sharks, where we ended up drawing 20-20 to qualify for Europe, having just lost to Brive in the 1997 Heineken Cup final. It certainly took its toll.
This present period is going to be tough on Premiership players. What we might see is a different style of play; less combative. People will stop carrying into brick walls and start looking for space. We are already starting to find games speeding up, with players, as Eddie Jones rightly said, becoming more instinctive.
The sides that can play at that higher tempo for longer, the better running teams, I think will do pretty well. And about five years after I first mentioned it, everyone has picked up on the time it takes for scrums to be formed.
There should be a regulation limiting that time, and the teams who hide behind the safety of their front row are only playing to the strengths of their scrum.
I am not sure why they have put the minute and game limits in place as part of the new welfare initiatives, because clubs look after their players; their assets. They have a better ability to read how a player is feeling than any regulation. It is far more productive and safe for the player to trust the club over the rules.
If someone said to me now there are 46 games, you know in your head you are not going to play them all. But if someone offered you 35 games in the next 12 months, you would say yes, too right.
If I could, I would play all 46. I hated missing games. But no one is going to do that. You cannot start three games in a week. We did back then, but it would be sensible not to. Equally, the more successful you are, the more tired you become. That’s the choice. You can
The choice is you can sleep more or win trophies – what do you want? Trophies, please
sleep more or win trophies – what do you want? The trophies, please.
We will see more academy prospects used the more we get into October, especially as sides cement their position in the Premiership table or realise they are not getting into the top four or top six. Leicester probably will be in that situation before anyone else.
Bristol Bears have amazing depth. Bath’s young players are starting to come through. Wasps are the most exciting team, however they do not have much depth. If they lose that back row of Jack Willis, Thomas Young and Brad Shields, it will be tough for them. But if that unit stays fit until the end, and Wasps get a bit of luck, they have a real chance of making the play-offs and potentially winning the whole thing.
Exeter Chiefs a couple of years ago qualified early for the semifinals, changed their team around and lost their intensity. They will have learnt from that. The challenge for directors of rugby now is managing time, and getting their players to peak when it matters most.