Vunipola has made a vital point that must be discussed
“Billy’s not moaning, he’s just making a point after missing out on the Lions”
If any Premiership player makes a comment containing the words ‘strike action’ it’s a big statement, but it’s gigantic when it’s a player of Billy Vunipola’s stature. It opens debate on a wide range of issues and it will be taken in so many different ways depending on your role in the game, whether you are a player, coach, owner, administrator or supporter.
Each will clearly have a different opinion and even players will have a different viewpoint because within the professional game you’ve got internationals, British Lions and then Premiership club players.
It’s intriguing to me who we hear from regarding this issue; which players feel they play too many games and who feel they don’t play enough.
Essentially Vunipola is questioning the player welfare of top internationals and it begs the question whether players have a big enough voice on wide issues such as season structure and timings of World Cups.
For me it’s great that someone of Vunipola’s stature has made a comment like this. It makes people sit up and take notice and think about what it all means going forward.
Billy is basically saying ‘our bodies can’t cope’ although what he is really saying is ‘my body can’t cope’. Due to his gargantuan measurements (6ft 2in and 20st 7lbs) and rigorous displays he has more stress going through his body and is far bigger than an average club player. I’d bet that if you ask the majority of club players they will say they love every single minute of every single game and would want to play more.
As a player you want to play every first team game for your club and country as we’ve seen recently with a number of English Lions making pleas to Eddie Jones not to be rested for the autumn internationals.
His comments will open up so many streams of conversation and he’s right that big questions need to be asked as we move further down the road of professionalism. Are there too many club games? Are there too many internationals now in the calendar? Is there enough money in the game? Are players paid enough, or too much?
For me there is a big hope that the clever people in the game react to this with pro-active talks so the topic of strike action is never brought up again – but it’s not an easy one and I think there needs to be a clear distinction between the top players and the rest in the Premiership.
The concentration on player welfare should be focussed on those top end international players, those who face the extra pressure on mind and body that Tests bring.
Eddie Jones says he wants a threedeep squad so let’s say 45 players out of a league containing almost 400 squad men – so around ten per cent of the players need more consideration.
If you are a non-international playing club rugby, you likely don’t play every week and the Challenge Cup is no way as attritional as the Champions Cup. You start in September and finish at the end of April if you don’t make the finals so it’s not a bad career. But it ramps up dramatically for those top end players, more matches, more mental pressure.
It would appear they get adequately remunerated for that but the question is whether that is the right way to look at it? Billy’s not moaning, he’s just making a point as after all he missed out on the biggest prize of touring New Zealand with the Lions due to injury after a long slog of a campaign.
I would be interested to know how many players would agree with him. If players went on strike, would they do it as a unit? And if they did all agree, they may find themselves sued for breach of contract.
Let’s get back to basics. What is the game about… is it the players, management, coaches or supporters? And what part of the game can live without the other? It’s a really interesting mix. I would like to believe that the smart people involved can work out a solution, however it would be naiive to ignore the self-interest that has been displayed on numerous occasions since professionalism began.
So far the ‘suits’, as Billy calls them, do not always seem to being doing everything together. Some decisions have been made by World Rugby without the recognition of leagues such as the Premiership and Top 14, where a lot of internationals have contracts and play the game. For instance are these leagues involved enough in decision making of when and where the World Cup is held?
Unfortunately I can see the game moving towards a situation like the English club v country row not so long ago when casual conversations over Premiership players being barred from representing their country found their way into the Press. We had a similar stand off over Europe when the Heineken Cup became the Champions Cup because the powers that be were not listening to what some people wanted.
No matter what people think of the club owners in England and France, they are the owners. Commercially it seems from the outside that these people have boosted the attractiveness of their leagues and made them financially successful. So if they are clever enough to do that, I would like to think they are clever enough to be involved in discussions to find a solution over this issue of player welfare.
In my view that means reducing further the number of games these top end players play for their club. Hopefully supporters will understand that these guys can’t be flogged and their bodies and minds just won’t take it. They must be at their best for international rugby because it’s the shop window of the game and the pinnacle to which every single player aspires.
But we must remember our roots and while there are arguments that the professional game provides the players for England, ultimately they came from the community game. I came from mini-rugby and most internationals today still come via that community route which is supported by the Union and exists only due to a lot of volunteer work.
We all contribute to the England team and I would argue that most skill development comes from the time children pick up a rugby ball to the middle teens. That skill base is built upon in Academies, but arguably they develop more the physical conditioning and mental toughness.
Vunipola has made a good point that needs addressing or more and more top players may find themselves on the sidelines just as much as on the field. It’s a point well made for himself, and some other players, but not all. What I hope now is that it stirs debate between the clever people to come up with a great solution that suits all. If they do, they will be remembered forever.
Body stress: Billy Vunipola receives treatment during last season’s semi-final against Exeter