French champions make strong case for rest

Alex Hayes says burnout fears are causing clubs to take drastic action
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The Independent Online

The French champions did something yesterday which could have serious repercussions around the European rugby world. Stade Français' unprecedented decision to rest all six of their French internationals for the league game against Bourgoin is the clearest message yet to the rugby authorities that the club support the widely held view that professionals are playing too many matches in a season.

The French champions did something yesterday which could have serious repercussions around the European rugby world. Stade Français' unprecedented decision to rest all six of their French internationals for the league game against Bourgoin is the clearest message yet to the rugby authorities that the club support the widely held view that professionals are playing too many matches in a season.

Stade Français' bold move is all the more significant because it follows Tuesday's inaugural meeting of the European Professional Club Rugby Association, at which representatives from England, France, Wales and Italy, as well as Scotland and Spain (even though the latter two's structures remain amateur), discussed the best way forward for the club game in Europe.

One of the new body's prime concerns is the number of games the top professionals are having to play in quick succession during the season. The former France captain Serge Blanco, who is president of the French League, has been appointed to set up a working party on the issue.

He will work alongside the likes of Damian Hopley, president of England's Professional Rugby Players' Association, and the Newcastle director of rugby, Rob Andrew. Together, these three respected figures hope to put in place a harmonised European calendar which, in turn, would reduce the amount of rugby played at the top level.

"The facts speak for themselves," Andrew said. "It's not just that players are playing too many games in a season. They complain most about the structure of the season - particularly the internationals coming and going - and the issue of mid-week rugby. It's a nightmare. You cannot expect players to be involved in three big games in the space of 10 days."

The Irish Rugby Union have put in place stringent guidelines governing their players' schedule. Of the 18 players who took part in the victory over Italy last Saturday, only four (three in England, one in France) were playing club rugby this weekend. The Stade Français management realise the advantage of this and have acted accordingly.

Perhaps the fact that Stade Français' manager, John Connolly, is an Australian played a part in the decision to rest the likes of Christophe Juillet and Franck Comba. He has seen at first hand the benefits of limiting the players' schedule and is used to a system where the top professionals are involved in no more than 26 matches a season. "I just felt that we needed to give the internationals a rest," Connolly said. "Some of them have played three or four games in the last two weeks and, if we want the [French] national team to do well, the players have to be taken care of properly."

The France manager, Bernard Laporte, thanked Stade Français for their "brave and important decision", before adding: "I think that three or four of their internationals absolutely needed a break. According to some blood tests we ran last week, those in question were running on empty."

How long will it take English clubs to follow suit? Leicester have already placed their England players on the bench this season, but they might now actually leave them out of matches altogether. Considering that they are so far in front of the rest of the field in the Zurich Premiership, not to mention the fact that they are going to have to win their title "again" through the play-offs system adopted last week at the Rugby Football Union council meeting, it is not inconceivable that Dean Richards could emulate Connolly's lead.

With a little luck, the Leicester manager may not have to. Peace and rugby union are not words that have gone hand in hand over the last few years but, with the foundations of a lasting settlement between the professional clubs and the unions almost in place, following the RFU's approval of the Heads of Agreement document on Thursday, the future looks brighter than it did even a week ago. Most significantly, the deal paves the way for a player-friendly schedule finally to be drawn up. "It's now or never," Andrew said.

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