Rugby Union: Lessons of the Sunbury burn-out

Chris Rea argues that there are too many matches in this professional age
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The Independent Online
For those who were not wholly committed to the London Irish cause last Wednesday night, and admittedly there were not many of us, Sunbury offered the final proof of the lunacy of an intolerable playing schedule which is making a mockery of form and undermining the efforts of those who have rugby's best interests at heart.

Leicester's season, which a few short weeks ago had promised such a rich harvest, was unravelling before our eyes and it is not inconceivable that the best club side in England will finish with nothing, not even qualification for Europe. That would be a travesty. Any similarity between the side which ruthlessly cut down the high and the mighty earlier in the year and the wilting rabble at Sunbury was in name only. Even the jerseys seemed faded imitations of the real thing.

Bob Dwyer's tactic, forced on him by injury and fatigue, backfired horribly. The men in the side wearied by the constant physical pounding of an interminable campaign, the boys raw, green and yards off the pace. When Lawrence Dallaglio spoke his mind last week there would have been a rousing chorus of approval from the players had they had the breath. Rob Andrew's words on the same subject and in the same vein would have carried more weight had Newcastle not demanded that their international players turn out for the club just 24 hours after they had given their all for their countries. Newcastle were not the only sinners in this respect, but there can be no surer way of depreciating your most valuable assets than this.

As it is, England's Lions will someone have to find their second wind in South Africa and their third wind in Australia. When they return they will be very fortunate if they have the luxury of two weeks' rest before they are called up by their clubs for the opening of the new season.

It is as preposterous as it is unsupportable. The problem is, of course, that there are far too many snouts in a trough which cannot possibly provide sustenance for all the mouths it now has to feed.

The game is paying out far more than it can afford and far more than can ever be covered by the fresh injection of cash from the new sponsorship agreement with Allied Dunbar. Something has to give and already, it seems, some of the players already have. In order to pay their spiralling wage bills, which in some cases far exceed pounds 2m a year, the clubs need to play as many games as they can possibly squeeze into a season. "You wouldn't buy a shop in Oxford Street," said one entrepreneur/ owner recently, "and close it down for half the year. But that is what we are expected to do at our clubs." The problem is that rugby players, unlike a shop, need time to rest and to recover from the physical bruising of the most demanding of sports.

There will be certainly be no relief for Dallaglio and his England colleagues next season and when eventually they return from their tour to New Zealand next summer it will be almost 49 weeks after the start of the season. In that time the clubs will have played 22 league matches plus cup games at home and in Europe and England will have played 10 internationals, six of them against the best rugby playing countries in the world. The first problem that the Rugby Football Union in partnership with the clubs will have to address (the RFU having caved into the clubs on the issue earlier in the season) is the number of clubs playing in the First Division. Dallaglio was spot-on in his belief that there should be a maximum of eight. In the short term, however, the task will be to reduce the number to 10.

There is a powerful lobby within the senior clubs for the numbers in the First and Second Divisions to remain at 24 but reducing the size of the First Division does not necessarily mean that the same has to be done in the Second Division. There could just as easily be a second tier containing 14 or even 16 clubs bearing in mind that they do not have to play in Europe and that, with a restructured domestic cup competition they would then have to play a likely maximum of 35 games a season which is perfectly acceptable.

Reducing the First Division initially to 10 and limiting the number of pre-Christmas internationals to three instead of the four at present, would mean a significant easing of the players burden. There would then be 18 league matches, a maximum nine ties in the Heineken European Cup and, by delaying the First Division clubs entry into the Pilkington Cup, no more than four cup matches. Together with the seven internationals that would restrict the top players to an absolute maximum of 38 matches per domestic season which might at least help to prevent the burn-out we are seeing in high-calibre performers at the moment and the kind of sorry farce which was enacted at Sunbury last Wednesday night.

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