LONDON, United Kingdom, May 22 – England’s Rugby Players’ Association hit out Monday at a “detrimental” plan to extend the top-flight Premiership season to 10 months, saying it was not “viable” and would jeopardise the welfare of players.
There have long been concerns about the toll an increasingly physical and fast-paced professional game is taking on players, with worries about concussion-related injuries a particular issue.
At the same time there has been an attempt to bring greater harmony between club and international fixtures worldwide, with rugby union traditionally a winter sport in both the northern and southern hemispheres.
March saw World Rugby announce plans for a new global calendar from 2020, which raised the possibility that European-based players could be left with an 11-month season once overseas Test tours were taken into account.
Premiership Rugby responded by saying the 2019/20 domestic season would be extended to provide more club rugby after the Six Nations concludes in March.
The season will still start at the beginning of September with the Premiership final played at the end of June, rather than the end of May as happens now.
Premiership Rugby chief executive Mark McCafferty, said the new set-up would “significantly reduce or eliminate overlaps between the international and club game”, adding this was good news for club fans as their teams would not be missing “important players for significant chunks of the season”.
McCafferty, who insisted player welfare was a “priority”, stressed the 32-game season limit would remain in place.
– ‘Arduous season’ –
But the unimpressed RPA said Monday in a strongly-worded statement that “extending an already arduous season from nine months to ten has serious implications for players, given the potential increase to the game, training and psychological loads they face”.
The RPA said reducing the off season from three months to two would have a “seriously detrimental effect on player welfare unless substantial guaranteed safeguards are introduced”, adding that Test stars would be particularly badly hit by the proposed changes.
“Perhaps most worryingly is the incredible strain these proposals would place on international players.
“If the Premiership season retains its current start date, the addition of a July tour schedule will lead to an 11-month season for these players.
“This cannot be avoided unless these players start their domestic season later, which brings into question the need for the season extension.
“Whilst we also acknowledge that the reduction of overlaps between international and domestic rugby is desirable, we do not believe the current proposals are viable,” adding they “unanimously rejected these proposals in their current form”.
“The Premiership season is already longer than comparable contact sports, including Super League, NFL and AFL,” the RPA added.
The issue of player welfare was highlighted again when England No 8 Billy Vunipola withdrew from the British and Irish Lions upcoming tour of New Zealand on Sunday.
His decision to pull out came just a day after he had given a typically committed 80-minute effort for Saracens in their bruising 18-16 Premiership semi-final defeat by Exeter.
That match came just a week after London club Saracens, the reigning English champions, had retained their European Champions Cup title in a hard-fought win over French club Clermont in Edinburgh.
Had Saracens, who had six players — the most of any club — in Lions coach Warren Gatland’s original squad, beaten Exeter, they would have been into a May 27 Premiership final at Twickenham, with the Lions leaving for New Zealand just two days later and playing their opening tour match on June 3.
Ian Ritchie, the outgoing chief executive of England’s Rugby Football Union, has suggested shortening future Lions tours from 10 to eight matches.
The Lions, however, only tour every four years and the RFU has far less say over their fixture schedule than it does in the number of England Tests, which it has no plans to cut significantly.
Stephen Jones, the long-serving rugby correspondent of Britain’s Sunday Times, wrote last weekend: “The rugby season cannot be so crazy for much longer; it cannot have big events falling after big events, with a Lions tour immediately afterwards. It is crazy, it is greedy, it is dangerous.”