Non-stop global game puts strain on men for all seasons

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The Independent Online

If the might of Australian manhood scrummages England into the Twickenham turf today, reducing Julian White to a limp wimp, then I'll take all this back.

If the might of Australian manhood scrummages England into the Twickenham turf today, reducing Julian White to a limp wimp, then I'll take all this back.

But this autumn series of northern hemisphere internationals suggests that calls for a global season are justified. South Africa have been unrecognisable as the team that played some scintillating rugby to win the Tri-Nations this year; Australia were overwhelmed by France in Paris barely six months after the Wallabies had put 51 points on England and several former All Blacks were shaking their heads in dismay at New Zealand's escape by the skin of their teeth in Wales last Saturday.

Quality players don't become hopeless overnight but the common thread is that the southern hemisphere countries are deep into the 11th month of their season. World-class players have begun to appear duffers and extracting any kind of worthwhile guideline from these games is misguided.

England and Ireland in the southern hemisphere in June offered more evidence. The fact is, just about every time a team tours at the end of its domestic season, its form dips. The reason is the huge physical and mental demands the professional game makes on players.

The former Springbok captain Bobby Skinstad spent last Saturday night with the South Africans. What he saw disturbed him.

"This group of players has looked worn out for a long time, since the end of the Currie Cup. They cannot wait to get this tour finished. Their season started on 3 January and you can't survive that kind of playing schedule. Any organisation that is planning it like that certainly isn't worrying about the condition of its players. But this is a worldwide problem. It is why I am no longer playing international rugby." To his name, add that of Lawrence Dallaglio and several others.

Yet there is a contrasting view. Firstly, a global season would be impractical because of the need in every country to maximise income. And besides, who cares if the opposition is not at its best? A friend of mine put it like this: "It's not all bad. Families get to see international rugby, because during the Six Nations it's so hard to get tickets. Northern hemisphere teams can prepare for the Six Nations. The unions get lots of dosh. Essentially, the autumn internationals suit us northerners, our summer tours suit the other lot because their unions cash in. Problem?"

He has a point. Do England's supporters care if the opposition falls apart through fatigue? Are they not there principally to see England ram a stack of points down someone's throat?

Skinstad's view is that it's a lousy business which takes such poor care of its most prized asset - the players. But players want high wages, which means unions must maximise their income. However, there is a price to be paid for so manic a schedule. Players will retire earlier and earlier. Twenty-six might become the average.

However, there is a twist to this particular tale. In the past decade it has been the autumn internationals which were regarded as the crème de la crème of the northern hemisphere winter international programme. Running up cricket scores against Wales, Scotland, Italy and Ireland in the Six Nations was being seen as increasingly irrelevant. The proper stuff came before Christmas against the southern hemisphere giants.

But suddenly, one of the most competitive Six Nations Championships in years looms. Wales in Cardiff, Ireland in Dublin, a powerful, classy French outfit at Twickenham? It will be a surprise if England run rampant against that lot. It's a good thing they've had a decent warm-up against lesser opposition this side of Christmas.