Rugby union: The pitfalls of professionalism

Mark Evans, the Saracens director of coaching, says the casualty list will grow
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The Independent Online
One week to go and exhausted players, coaches and support staff gird their loins for another two or three highly taxing games at the business end of the season. It feels as if the Courage League has been going on for ever, and the participants look longingly at the prospect of a break - unless, of course, you're a Lion or a Scot bound for the high veld, an English tourist journeying to the Pampas or a potential Irish international popping over to New Zealand for a spot of "development".

Next season kicks off on 23 August - but don't bet against it coming forward a week or two. There will be four major internationals for England before Christmas, an even more competitive Allied Dunbar League with the promotion of Newcastle, Richmond and perhaps Bedford; oh and by the way next year the season ends in the middle of May - unless you are in the play-offs in which case you don't start packing your bucket and spade until early June. The era of 12 months a year, non-stop rugby union is almost upon us.

Now I know full well that the couple of paragraphs above sound like the whinings of a pampered, privileged professional, who doesn't know how lucky he is. I am well aware that the players have longer to rest these days and that they are paid good money. No one has to tell me that the financial requirements are such that clubs need regular, meaningful home fixtures every fortnight throughout the season in order to alleviate their cash-flow problems. Nevertheless, I don't believe that it is in anyone's interest in the long run to perpetuate a 10-month season. It won't help Northern hemisphere rugby raise its standards because there will be no time to do enough strength and power work in the close season. Eventually the paying public will grow weary of a surfeit of top-flight rugby week after week (look at how even the rugby mad public of South Africa have been sated by a non-stop diet of Super 12, Tri-Nations and Currie Cup). The players are playing when hurt all the time and eventually a significant number will break down with long-term injuries. Last, and probably least, coaches find it increasingly difficult to do quality work in the week because half the squad is in the physiotherapy room.

Ideally the First Division should consist of eight clubs playing home and away, and there should be a European competition and a domestic cup. Total number of club games - no more than 25 in a sixth-month season with undersoil heating a condition for membership of the top division. This would allow another two-month period for international matches and tours. The chances of this happening are roughly zero but there has to be some degree of rationalisation, otherwise the long term looks worrying.

So much for what won't happen - how about what will? Where are things going as we conclude the first professional season? Over the summer look out for a series of cost-cutting measures with clubs off-loading surplus players and focusing their efforts on one single senior team. The days of the semi- professional player already look numbered; training in the daytime with one or two key players in the office or the classroom just doesn't work. At the more far-sighted clubs, resources will be ploughed into youth development, with more full-time appointments in this area. The marketing of the game has only been played with up to now - expect to see more imaginative schemes to get people into the grounds; which probably means that the Newcastle Falcons are only the first in a long line of union animals to set alongside the Bulls and Rhinos of league.

The casualty list of coaches and directors of rugby will continue to grow - this year saw the demise, and re-emergence in some cases, of John Hall, Brian Ashton, Clive Woodward, Peter Williams and Mark Ring. In my own case there has been an overhaul of the structure at Saracens with the introduction of Francois Pienaar as player-coach. Such changes are always stressful in any organisation but in sport they seem invested with an emotional element not always found elsewhere. We are confident that the new structure will enable us to achieve a greater level of consistency next year.

The last remnants of amateurism will be swept away as more and more clubs look to outside investors, consider a market listing and become more accountable to shareholders and the like. There will be more ground sharing and some clubs will get into serious financial difficulties. The number of foreign nationals will continue to grow and a genuine transfer market will emerge. It is more exciting, riskier and the pressures are greater than ever before, but there is no going back now.

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