Sports Writer Dan Hague discusses whether the England International Rugby players are involved in too many matches at club level, to the detriment of their national sides
Regulations brought in by the RFU (Rugby Football Union) this year have seen the number of matches that a Premiership player is required to play reduced from 32 to 30, in an attempt to limit the club playing time of England International Rugby players. However, this is nowhere near enough according to the RPA (Rugby Players Association).
In the 2012-13 season, Dan Cole played an astonishing 41 games, but fell 324 minutes short of 2,560, due to the 60 minute stints often carried out by props. This has seen a limit on the number of minutes played by any single player set at 2560 or 35 match involvements, whichever comes sooner. Although this is some improvement, there are still a significant number of injuries. A host of regulars for Eddie Jones have all but been ruled out of the upcoming Autumn Internationals; the likes of Billy Vunipola, Mako Vunipola, Joe Launchbury, Chris Robshaw, Jonathan Joseph and Anthony Watson are all unlikely to feature in the coming tests.
Despite these concerns Eddie Jones has stood firm backing the RFU and Premier Rugby’s limited changes: ‘You never want to get players injured … We play a collision sport so unfortunately you do get injuries. We try to do everything we can to ensure we don’t, but sometimes you do.’ This mellow response contrasts the opinions of one of the game’s premier commentators. Ugo Monye, former British and Irish Lions winger, said in a podcast: ‘[Eddie Jones] will be having nightmares … when you are losing front-line warriors ahead of such a testing series, that puts his squad under strain.’
One would expect all other international teams to be having similar injury problems, however this is not the case. Ireland can field a virtually full strength team for the coming Autumn Internationals, and in my opinion this is because Ireland’s international players are centrally contracted. What this means is that the IRFU (Irish Rugby Football Union) can manage the game time of certain players; a luxury not afforded to Eddie Jones. To take one example, James Ryan played 24 games last year, of these games 11 were internationals, nine were Champions Cup appearances and just four were played in his domestic league the Pro14. This is all because Ireland has the power to keep its top players fit for the most important games.
Why don’t the Premiership clubs do this? One word: relegation. The Pro14 is a lot less competitive than the Gallagher Premiership and this is because there is no relegation. Although there is not that inevitable sense of jeopardy one gets with relegation, it allows clubs to experiment with squad selection and develop depth, meaning key players are rested. The Premiership clubs, on the other hand, would never allow a central contracting system like in Ireland as they need their best players playing regularly.
So what more can we do? There needs to be much better communication between the RFU and Premier Rugby. It is much better if the players don’t get injured and play fewer minutes than if the players do get injured and can’t play at all. Therefore, the RFU need to introduce a protocol where the RPA manage the total minutes of international players or face a situation in which the nation is consistently losing games due to players being worked too hard.