Vunipola has made a vi­tal point that must be dis­cussed

The Rugby Paper - - Letters | Views - JEREMY GUS­COTT

“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

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