Enough already, say top rugby players

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The Independent Online

England's elite rugby stars, exhausted and frustrated at the increasing demands being placed upon them, are set to flex their aching muscles off the field as well as on.

England's elite rugby stars, exhausted and frustrated at the increasing demands being placed upon them, are set to flex their aching muscles off the field as well as on.

The Professional Rugby Players' Association, who represent more than 300 players throughout the Zurich Premiership, will ask their members in the next three weeks to ratify a plan for collective bargaining with their employers, the 12 Premiership clubs and the Rugby Football Union. High on the PRA's wish-list is a mandatory two-month rest period, a standard minimum wage, and a limit to the number of matches players face.

Damian Hopley, the secretary of the PRA, is responding to acute concern among the players at the length of the English competitive season, which had its earliest ever start last weekend, includes a new three-week Championship stage in April and May 2001, and finishes with the Lions tour to Australia next summer.

Hopley has been in discussions with Tony Dempsey, the president of the Australian Players' Association, who have had a collective bargaining agreement since 1995. Australia won the World Cup for the second time last winter, and when the Wallabies return to take on England this November, they will face opponents who have played almost twice as many matches in the intervening 12 months.

"The biggest issue in professional rugby is that no one has defined the relationship between the players, the clubs and the governing bodies," said Hopley. "We are taking a lead from Australian rugby, which is not a bad example given their outstanding success. We will go out to all the clubs in the first two weeks of September to discuss with the players how collective bargaining will work, and how it's going to benefit them."

Hopley stressed that the PRA are intent on co-operation rather than militancy. He believes that a limit of 30 matches a year - 20 for club, 10 for country - is necessary for a player to maintain even a 10-year career at the top level, but accepts that 35 or 36 is more realistic until the packed fixture list is drastically curtailed.

A figure of 37 was proposed as long ago as the Mayfair Agreement of June 1998, and Rob Andrew's plan mentioned 35, but nothing has been agreed. "We don't want to go down the road of strike action," Hopley said, "but patience is running out. These are issues that have been tackled in other sports such as basketball and Australian Rules, and it is just a matter of time before we follow suit. The bottom line is the players' welfare."

England internationals have voted with their feet on two notable occasions since the sport went open in 1995. In September 1996, all but one of the national squad boycotted a training session during a stand-off between the clubs and the RFU. In the summer of 1998, around a dozen players missed the tour of the southern hemisphere, and the record76-0 defeat by Australia, after almost two years of rugby.

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