Rugby Union: Fixture proposals raise fears of burn-out

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The Independent Online
The poor bloody infantry of English rugby will blanch at the prospect, but next season's programme of domestic, cross-border and international competition is the most brutally relentless ever devised. As things stands, the 1997-98 campaign will virtually mirror soccer's model by beginning on 16 August and dragging on until the last week in May.

Those with the well-being of the players, rather than the rude health of club bank accounts, at heart will be aghast. Jack Rowell, the England coach, has already identified fixture congestion as his biggest single problem in preparing the national team for Test matches while Phil de Glanville, his captain, said only a week ago that leading performers were at risk from "burn-out".

Next season's fixture list, including as it does 22 Courage League games, up to 11 Heineken Cup matches, a maximum of five Pilkington Cup ties and eight England international dates with a nice, relaxing summer tour of New Zealand tagged on the end, will drive players to the edge of exhaustion. Test regulars will be in serious danger of playing twice as much rugby as their counterparts in New Zealand, South Africa and Australia, many of whom get away with 30 or fewer games a year.

Representatives of the First Division clubs have returned the first draft of the fixture list to the planners with "Think Again" stamped all over it. One senior club official described the programme as "arse backwards", saying: "We have three League games in August and then have to wait until the end of December for the fourth, which is crazy. There is no point in block-booking the whole of September and October for European rugby because it leaves those who are not involved with a vast hole to fill. The European matches should be threaded through the season, as they are in football."

Disagreements over Europe are about to become as fractious in rugby as they are among the Tories. English and French clubs are increasingly concerned at what they describe as a "Celtic agenda" aimed at expanding the Heineken Cup into a season-long European league - a move that would revolutionise domestic competition in Ireland, Scotland and Wales but decimate the much stronger national league structures operating in the two stronger countries. The debate will come to a head in Dublin on Wednesday when European Rugby Cup Ltd holds a meeting to analyse the plusses and minuses of this season's tournament and considers ways of developing it in the medium and long terms. Peter Wheeler, the Leicester chief executive, has been mandated by the English clubs to take a hard line on future expansion plans.

"We feel the tail is wagging the dog here," one English lobby insider said. "The English and French clubs are the big attractions, yet they find themselves outvoted time and again. Meetings have taken place at various levels between club officials from the two countries and if our domestic league competitions come under threat, the repercussions could be very serious."

At least England, Scotland and Ireland have been spared extra international commitments in the run-up to the 1999 World Cup. Fears that they would have to play off against each other to decide seedings were allayed yesterday when Leo Williams, the competition chairman, announced that all three countries had agreed to draw lots.

Mike Catt, the England outside-half, is fit for this weekend's World Cup Sevens in Hong Kong after testing out a groin injury yesterday.