Despite support for newly-elected World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont’s advocacy of moving the Six Nations to later in the calendar year, there are still considerable problems to weigh up in order to create a truly global rugby season.
When you plot out all the windows for tier 1 nations’ domestic and international seasons, it really begins to reveal what a mess the status quo is.
With both the Super Rugby competition expanding to accommodate a total of 18 sides (five from Australia, five from New Zealand, six from South Africa and one apiece from Japan and Argentina) and the Top 14 seeming to go on forever (now stretching from late August until late June), the fixture list is out of control.
If you’re a current Springbok, All Black or Wallaby and play a full season of Super Rugby and Rugby Championship games before moving to the Top 14 or Aviva Premiership then you’re putting your body to its very limits. That would involve 15 round robin games, plus potentially a quarter-final, semi-final and final. That puts us at 18 games from late February to early August.
But you may also need to play in all your country’s international fixtures, so you can add on nine to the total, currently making it 26 games. However, if you’re an Australian or Kiwi then you would be involved in the extra Bledisloe Cup game on 22nd October. After that, you finally get to move to your new club.
So your club is kind and gives you a game off to recuperate, meaning you make your first appearance on 7th November. Add in potential play-off quarter final, semi-final and final appearances then you’re looking at up to 23 extra games in the Top 14. In total, that’s 50 games from early August to late June. That’s not even factoring in European Champions Cup or LV Cup fixtures.
Obviously, due to the high fixture demand on French clubs they have enormous squads that they can use to rotate players. For example, Toulon’s senior squad contains 48 players, not even taking into account academy players. That’s not the case for every player, though; the player with the most appearances in the Top 14 at the moment is Agen’s Burton Francis with 21 (19 starts) out of a possible 23.
However, in 2013-2014 Dan Cole played in 41 matches but was not included in the EPS agreement limit of 32 matches because it is calculated based on minutes played and not the number of games. It is surely no coincidence that Cole spent much of the 2014-2015 season injured with hip and neck injuries. There’s only so much an individual can take.
Northern Hemisphere players are involved in pre-season friendlies, club league fixtures, European fixtures, Autumn Internationals (3 or 4 at times), more club fixtures, the Six Nations, more club and European fixtures, and then summer tours – which for England players involves up to four tests, before getting a break after 25th June. It all starts up again in early August with pre-season training and pre-season friendlies. It’s not sustainable and players need to be given a proper break.
What’s the solution then? Well Beaumont’s plan is that moving the Six Nations to the end of the current season would mean players could have a proper break in the middle of the year. However, this would mean players moving straight from the Six Nations to summer tours and then back into the domestic grind after a short rest period.
In reality, does moving the pieces of the jigsaw really help anyone if they’re not doing anything to prevent player burnout? Surely World Rugby should be looking at reducing the games for everyone, or at the very least encouraging individual nations to tailor game limits for individual players. The same amount of games in a different order might help the kings and queens but it doesn’t benefit the pawns.
In rugby’s global season enigma there are certainly no quick fixes.
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