Rugby Union / Five Nations Countdown: England risk burn-out before the battle: The demands of league rugby have undermined Geoff Cooke's squad. Steve Bale reports

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The Independent Online
BEFORE they even set out on their Five Nations quest in Scotland on Saturday, the England players are battered, bruised, tired and aching. So imagine how they will feel by the time they reach the end against Wales next month.

How ironic that it is the very thing that has elevated English rugby to its present eminence - the new rigour of its club scene - that is the threat. As Geoff Cooke, the England manager, would put it, there is only so much these boys can take and many of them who have been entered on the longest injury list in his experience have already taken too much.

Moreover, it is going to get worse, not just as this international season proceeds and is followed by England's tour to South Africa but next season with the extended build-up to, and playing of, the World Cup back in South Africa. 'We recently gave our players their 18-month programmes,' Cooke said, 'and frankly it's frightening.

'I don't know how we are going to get them to the World Cup in one piece and a fresh state of mind after a long, arduous season - unless we can get a situation that is accepted by the clubs where the national- squad players have to be given breaks. This cumulative-fatigue thing can be very, very worrying.'

This, as Cooke recognises with a sigh of long-standing frustration, is easier said than done. Most of us would say that the success and expansion of the game in England stem directly from the England team; to mix a metaphor, the shop window nourishing the grass roots.

But there are powerful vested interests at work militating against England in general and the winning of the 1995 World Cup in particular. 'There is no question that, given the freedom to structure things from an England point of view, we would be looking for our players to be resting each Saturday before internationals.

'These games are very demanding physically and they shouldn't have to go out and put their bodies on the line in the intervening weeks. But at the same time I can understand the clubs' point of view and I'm sure that if I were in a club situation I would want my star players available.

'There is a tradition of giving a new cap the Saturday off before his debut but, if England are important, we have to extend that to everyone in the team. What we haven't managed is to get some sense into the system, to find a way of matching different, and sometimes conflicting, demands within the limits of our season - and that's causing us problems.'

The obvious reflection of this is England's unprecedented run of injuries. Cooke would be the first to admit that his team have generally been lucky in this respect during his seven years in charge but this has now changed with a vengeance.

It is not only those who have been missing from matches - Guscott, Bayfield and Morris against New Zealand and now Guscott, Rodber and Richards against Scotland - but the niggles and knocks that have impeded so many others before and after. Virtually every member of Saturday's England side has been affected at one time or another.

In many, perhaps even most, cases it is chance; witness Dean Richards's dislocated elbow. But no one can persuade Cooke that having to play a punishing round of First Division fixtures last Saturday was the best way of keeping everyone in perfect health to face the Scots, nor that another league round on Saturday week will be ideal seven days before the Irish come to Twickenham.

And so it goes on throughout the Five Nations. 'We've had a particularly bad spell with injuries and you wonder if it's coincidence or the pressure of league rugby taking its toll,' Cooke said. 'It's impossible to prove categorically, but I do believe it has to be a contributory factor that they are taking an enormous physical battering over an extended period of time.

'The intensity of the game has gone up dramatically and, though the fitness levels have gone up correspondingly, inevitably you are going to get injuries. There is a lot of luck attached to injuries; for instance, no one has ever really been able to pin down why hamstring injuries occur when they do.

'Contact injuries are different again; the Dean Richards dislocation was obviously an accidental thing. But with overuse injuries, the sort of thing Jerry Guscott has had and Gary Armstrong had with long-term groin or pelvic conditions, there are some worrying trends and I'm afraid we're going to have an increased incidence of shoulder and neck injuries directly attributable to the increased intensity.'

It is already occurring. No matter how fit an individual may be, no matter how inured his body may be to the shuddering collisions now commonplace at club let alone international level, there has to be a limit. And everything Cooke says indicates that that limit has been reached . . . unless, to return to Cooke's club-v-country conundrum, everyone agrees that a longer recovery time is essential.

Maybe it will happen. The England management is approaching the problem through the players themselves, seeking to reach a consensus over the next few weeks so that Cooke can go to the Rugby Football Union with a recommendation. 'It's easy for us to put things forward from our perspective; the trouble is the clubs would tend to look at it differently.'

As for Saturday, Cooke can only hope for the best. 'I am a little worried about the effect last Saturday's games may have on the players at Murrayfield,' he conceded. 'When they assembled last weekend a lot of them were very, very tired. They woke up on Sunday with tired legs and we had to have a very light session.

'We couldn't do an awful lot and we had to instruct them to do nothing at all for the next two days, to switch off completely. It's a cumulative thing and you're never quite sure how things are going and after Scotland we'll feel like saying to all of them, 'Look, do you really have to play next Saturday?' But I'm not empowered to say that, so I can't' Not officially, anyway.

(Photograph omitted)