More than a body can take

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Rugby's flesh and blood can only stand so much use, but new structures to the season that can only add to the wear and tear on our players continue to be suggested. I'm sure all these fixture-list architects mean well but I don't think they have enough regard for those who have to fulfil them.

Rugby's flesh and blood can only stand so much use, but new structures to the season that can only add to the wear and tear on our players continue to be suggested. I'm sure all these fixture-list architects mean well but I don't think they have enough regard for those who have to fulfil them.

The main problem with our players is that they have too many masters to serve. They must please the club owners, who provide their bread and butter, the national teams, who provide the jam and the glory, and the coaches, who provide all the sweat and tears in between. And, as we saw in the World Cup, the system is not working.

What the Six Nations' unions should do is get together, agree that they have a common aim to improve our game to southern hemisphere standards and then work out the best way to do it as the song says ­ in union. As sensible as that might seem, it fails to dawn on the various factions fighting to get their way.

Last week's notion of a British League proposed by Tom Walkinshaw and the other rich club owners seems fine. Ten English clubs, four Welsh and two Scottish would yield some terrific rugby and attract big crowds, but it would require 30 games. Add to that five International Championship games, plus a handful of warm-up internationals, plus a long run in the Heineken Cup and another in the domestic Cup and you are talking about 50 games or more in a season.

Big squads and a rotation system could take off some of the burden but too much will still be asked of the best players. The maximum a top player should be required to play is 30 to 35 matches a season which works out at a match every weekend plus a few in midweek.

But I'm less worried about the number of games they play than I am about the number of good performances they leave behind on the training ground. There is no point in controlling the number of matches they play if the clubs and countries continue to punish players throughout the week with demanding training regimes.

It is no surprise that we are producing robots unable to think for themselves. The lack of individuality was clear in the World Cup and is even more apparent in the European matches. The natural flair of our players is not being encouraged. So much work is being pumped into their minds and bodies that by the end of the week they are not only knackered but also bored to death. No wonder they are losing the knack of thinking on their feet.

Midweek preparations should concentrate on developing basic skills. You need to discuss tactics and study the opposition but the emphasis should be on game improvement. It is necessary to check on fitness levels regularly but players should do more training alone. It helps to build self-discipline. Being in close proximity all week fosters more boredom than team spirit. We should be encouraging individuality off the field as well as on it.

As for the structure of the season, an expansion of the European competitions is the answer. At the moment the Heineken Cup involves 24 teams in four groups of six. If we increased the numbers to 28 or even 32 we would have four groups of seven or eight which would mean each club would play at least 12 or 14 games.

Those who reached the final would play an extra three matches. That sort of programme added to international and domestic cup commitments would be about enough and may even leave room for a few traditional friendlies. Supported by an Under-21 competition for up-and-coming players we would have a full and exciting programme and one that would surely bring the improvement we urgently need.

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