What annoys me about the central- contracts controversy now raging in English rugby is that no one seems to be concerned about the players who are stranded in the middle of it.
They are being haggled over like a herd of prime heifers. In some cases, that may be an appropriate image to conjure up, but top players deserve to be treated like individuals, not robots.
The rest period of 11 weeks for those players involved in the Lions tour which the Rugby Football Union have been trying to enforce, not very successfully at some clubs, is by no means a bad idea. It is vital that the burden of too many games is removed from the top players, but it needn't be so rigid. Players are capable of deciding themselves when they need a break.
Different players require different treatment. You only have to look at the state of the game at the moment to realise that if you treat them like automatons that's the way they will tend to play. Too heavily programmed, unimaginative, lacking vision and instinctive reaction; there's a lot more wrong with rugby than deciding whose safe hands their contracts should be in.
Each player has his own approach to coping with the demands of the game, and in this professional age ought to be trusted to know what is best for his physical and mental state. He may need expert guidance in that, but in the end only he can be the judge of what his body can take.
It doesn't do rugby any good to keep getting involved in these tedious political arguments that bewilder the ordinary fan. I'm sure, for instance, that many people think that the Lions players are sitting at home with their feet up during this time. Far from it. They are working their socks off on unrelenting work schedules designed to push their fitness levels. I can promise you that intensive training without any serious rugby regularly involved is no picnic.
I don't know if the Lions who have turned out for Leicester, Sale and Wasps had pressure put on them by their clubs, but I can promise you they would have been busting to get into the action.
Playing rugby is what it is all about, but there are other considerations as well. In Wales, the regions have obeyed the instruction, however reluctantly, to hold back their Lions, but I know that a few of the Welsh players are dying to get back into action. The main reason is that they fear they won't have enough game time to prove they are capable of holding on to their places in the autumn internationals. These are players who helped to win the Grand Slam last season, and if they are worried about the challenges of other players, think of how nervous the English boys will be feeling. England have had a lacklustre, unfulfilling year, and they hardly distinguished themselves on the Lions tour to New Zealand, so they have more to prove than anyone else.
To restrict them en bloc is not fair. Some players may feel they are benefiting from the break, but others will be desperate to play. They should be allowed to decide for themselves. OK, some clubs might bully them into playing, but that's up to the individual to sort out. Serving two masters is not easy, and in the end the player has to decide what is best for him in the long term.
The only answer, of course, is to structure the season so that this is less of a bugbear to country and clubs. But it is not the season that is the problem, it is the off-season, if you can call it that.
The danger of central contracts is that clubs will go for non-internationals, mostly foreigners. It would not take a genius proprietor to work out that a first team without an international stand a much better chance of week-by-week success than a team containing three of four of them. That's not going to help the development of our rugby at all. What will help is if the needs of the players are better understood.
I managed to complete the Great North Run half-marathon in under two hours in Newcastle last Sunday (my wife, Helen, beat me by three minutes) and in doing so raised over £360,000, with donations still coming in, for the Noah's Ark Children's Hospital for Wales Appeal. My thanks go to the famous Wooden Spoon Society for donating £250,000, to all the other donors, and to Brendan Foster for suggesting it.Reuse content