Peter Bills: Star players are on the verge of burn out

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The Independent Online

'The magic has even temporarily deserted Brian O'Driscoll'.

I read those words from one media critic after Ireland's defeat to Australia in Brisbane 10 days ago and honestly wondered. What do we want from these guys? We get blood, on a regular basis. Do we expect their lives to be laid down for their country's rugby team?



Now you can say that every time Brian O'Driscoll arrives in another country, he might be tempted to adopt the Oscar Wilde entry statement: "I have nothing to declare except my genius". But really, this is not a subject for jokes.



By my reckoning, O'Driscoll, who got married at the end of last week in Ireland, has played rugby in 20 of the last 22 months of his life. If he started training late August 2008 with Leinster, he would have been involved for the remaining four months of that year. In 2009, he captained Ireland to a first Grand Slam for 61 years and was a key figure as Leinster went to the final of the Heineken Cup and won the trophy by beating Leicester.



Within weeks, Ireland's captain was in South Africa with the 2009 British Lions. He played a critical part in that series and performed heroically. Was it a complete accident that after he returned home from playing in the Test series alongside O'Driscoll, Welsh centre Jamie Roberts hardly looked the same player for most of the following season? I think not.



Last summer, when he finally got home, O'Driscoll presumably got a couple of months off before serious training began for him for the new season. In November, he again led Ireland on the international stage, scoring a crucial try against Australia to snatch a draw from the game, and leading the team to victory over South Africa. Before that, there had been the Heineken Cup and occasional Magners League games and then came, in the New Year, the 6 Nations Championship. When all that was over and Leinster had fallen in the Heineken Cup and narrowly missed out on the Magners League crown, there was the June tour to New Zealand and Australia to think about.



Now no player in my experience has ever actually looked forward to the day his career ended. But even so, would a player like Brian O'Driscoll not be human if he hadn't at some point imagined what it will be like when he can step off this year round roller-coaster, when he can get up late on a Saturday morning, just put on a pair of shorts and an old rugby shirt and drift down to the local cafe with his wife, chat and relax over a cappuccino, knowing that the day is his. In other words, like the rest of us do and enjoy so much.



So they're the great privileged of society these guys, I hear you say. There's no way they should be moaning; not with the money they earn, the cars, the glamour and the prestige. Well, they're not. They accept that certain responsibilities go with those rewards and believe me, they understand fully how fortunate they are.



But that doesn't mean the game itself has the right to flog them like cart horses. If you have a thoroughbred racehorse, you don't enter it for every tuppence ha'penny event all year round. You don't send it out, expecting it to perform and show its class in every single God damn race ever invented. You nurture it; protect it as though it were a prized investment, which is what it is. You deliberately keep it wrapped in cotton wool, not over stretch it.



Why? Because the best racehorses are like the best rugby players. They only have a certain amount of performances in them. When that number has been reached, whatever it is, they are generally finished.



Now I thought of a player like Brian O'Driscoll when I listened to the words of self congratulation coming out of the IRB when they announced recently that longer term tours, something like the old fashioned variety, were coming back. Great, said most people in the game. Wonderful; another link with tradition restored.



But it's only great for the best players, like Brian O'Driscoll, if it means they aren't going to be driven even harder, ever further. If some recompense is to be made for the fact that they may need to play in a 3-Test series in the southern hemisphere in June, where will the slack be cut in the preceding months?



For the fact is, if the return of so-called 'traditional' tours means simply loading ever more commitments onto the shoulders of the world's greatest players, all the IRB will be doing is hastening the demise of these stars of the game.



And from where I sit, that doesn't look a terribly clever idea.

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