This time last year, an England XV was lining up to face the Barbarians at Twickenham. Featuring a mixture of some established players and a number of up-and-coming individuals, it was a joyous affair involving attacking rugby and no shortage of flair, nous and vivaciousness.
Now, arguably the strongest team England can field will line up against a powerful Wales outfit, before both sides set off on their gruelling three-test tours of Australasia. Both sides will be treating the game as seriously as they can despite it being a one-off fixture.
Two of the world’s great rugby rivals will not be taking this Test match lightly, as represented through the 78,000 tickets sold for the game.
But this brings Wales’ total Tests this calendar year to seventeen: three World Cup warm-up games, five World Cup games, five Six Nations fixtures and finally four summer tests, ignoring the mid-week fixture they have arranged with New Zealand Super Rugby side the Chiefs. England, despite an atrocious World Cup campaign, will have played sixteen.
This is on top of Aviva Premiership, Pro 12 and Champions Cup or Challenge Cup campaigns.
Next season there will be no World Cup, but the Autumn Internationals will return and the LV= Cup, the developmental Anglo-Welsh tournament will make its comeback after a season-long hiatus to accommodate World Rugby’s flagship tournament. Most importantly, however, will be the arrival of the 2017 British and Lions tour, with a whole host of warm-up and midweek fixtures.
Replacing the annual Barbarians friendly with the intense environment of a full-blown test match cannot benefit player welfare. When the issue of player burnout has never been more prominent, how can the RFU and WRU justify the addition of this match?
One journalist explained that the RFU need the money from the event to pay for the World Cup agreement that was in place between them and Premiership Rugby to delay the start of the season and remove the LV= Cup to accommodate the window needed for the Rugby World Cup.
However, it is appears the ‘Old Mutual Wealth Cup’ (what a delightfully apt name), is set to be a regular feature and will permanently replace the old Barbarians game. This might be necessary to fund the increasingly expensive EPS agreement between the RFU and the Premiership clubs, but financial priorities from both sides of the club v country debate appear to be ignoring the men in the middle: the players.
Whilst Wales have gone a long way to ensuring their best players are kept in a good state through the new ‘national dual registration’ contracts, allowing the WRU final say over how many games a player plays for the region, the RFU and Premiership Rugby have yet to make any real progress on limiting the number of games an individual takes part in during the season.
According to the Guardian, England tighthead Dan Cole played 41 games in one season. The 32 game limit imposed by the EPS agreement made between the RFU and the clubs “is calculated by minutes on the field rather than number of games” (via the Guardian), meaning you could still be training for a game all week and then only play 15 minutes and have it not really affect your game total.
At a time when player welfare is becoming more and more prominent as an issue, it is not right that both the RFU and the clubs are agreeing to more games in the name of money. Player burnout is a real concern in the game now and more must be done to safeguard players’ careers. Players should come first, not be an afterthought.