Paul Wassell argues that while England’s players continue to serve two masters (the RFU and their club) as opposed to having centralised contracts like in New Zealand, they will continue to suffer the same fitness woes Eddie Jones has discussed of late.
Last week, Jones highlighted that England’s players were not fit enough to challenge the southern hemisphere superpowers that dominated last year’s Rugby World Cup.
“The players are fit enough to play in the Six Nations but won’t be fit enough to play in Australia on hard tracks, definitely. Fitness is not about straight fitness – it’s game-specific fitness,” Jones told the Mail Online.
“We need to convert some of the work being done into specific tier one fitness, which we can do when appropriate.”
Jones has talked of working with the Premiership clubs to improve this, but ultimately the England coaching set-up is always going to struggle when the players are serving two masters: that of the RFU and their club.
Unlike in New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, Ireland, Scotland, Wales – with their dual national contracts – and now Argentina, the players at national level do not have central contracts and are employed by their Premiership clubs.
The EPS agreement that has been in place since 2007 provides the England coaches with greater access to their players than the test windows outlined by World Rugby allow them, which every test nation is permitted, but ultimately the RFU pays the clubs many millions of pounds to secure this player release without centrally contracting the players themselves.
As a result, the English clubs are under no obligation to develop players specifically for the national side or to best prepare them for test rugby. This includes the players’ fitness.
World Cup-winning coach Sir Clive Woodward talked about England’s fitness issues in his most recent article for the Daily Mail. He highlighted that the England players cannot compare to the ‘thoroughbreds’ of New Zealand and Australia.
But regardless of the work Eddie Jones and England do together, they will never be able to compete with whole national systems such as in New Zealand and Australia where players are working to develop themselves to become world-class internationals.
The priority for the Blues, the Crusaders, the Hurricanes, the Highlanders and the Chiefs is not to win the Super Rugby tournament but to ensure their players are in the best shape to become All Blacks.
That is not the case in England where players need to be at their best for almost every weekly Premiership and European fixture before being asked to do the same again for ten or more internationals a year.
Eddie Jones himself talked about the need for the RFU to control their own players before he accepted the England job, but Leicester director of rugby Richard Cockerill called the idea of central contracts in England impossible when speaking to The Guardian:
“He can talk about central contracts all he wants, but it ain’t going to happen in our lifetimes.”
Without a clear pathway in place for England players, it seems nigh on impossible that they will ever be able to compete with the Southern Hemisphere teams again. With the EPS agreement up for renewal at the end of June this year, it can only be hoped the clubs and the RFU somehow find a way to improve the situation, because the status quo will always result in a mediocre England side, regardless of the quality of the coaching.
As long as England players continue to serve two masters, neither side will ever get their players at their very best.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena
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