Players draw battle lines over Christmas fixture pile-up

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The Independent Online

England's professional players, exhausted and embittered at what they see as institutional neglect by their employers, have drawn the battle lines over the hectic Christmas fixture list.

The players are insisting on one match off, and preferably two, during the period of four matches in 16 days to be played by the Premiership between 22 December and 7 January. The Professional Rugby Players' Association stopped short of describing it as a withdrawal of labour, preferring "ensuring best practice in the clubs' duty of care".

It was the release of this season's fixtures - greeted with "utter disbelief" by the PRA chairman, David Barnes - which was the tipping point in the players' attitude towards their employers: the clubs and the Rugby Football Union. They used the publication of an Ipsos Mori poll of almost 400 PRA members to voice their growing dissatisfaction over injury, burn-out and the perennially congested season.

Although it was the RFU who initially came in for the PRA's ire for their "self-serving" inter-pretation of the poll, the players' first battle in the war to improve their working conditions is with the clubs.

"The main thing is the season's structure," said Barnes, the Bath prop who captained England's second team at the summer's Churchill Cup. "We need long-term planning, and hopefully we will get that when the World Cup is out of the way. No player should be expected to play four games in 16 days. I've been working on a document of best practice and I do believe we are moving forward." The PRA intend to appoint an independent doctor and a physiotherapist after the poll reported that 68 per cent of players had felt pressured to play while injured.

The RFU will meet the clubs on Wednesday, which is also the day they hope to announce their new élite rugby director, Sir Clive Woodward or Rob Andrew.

The poll also found the majority of England's élite player squad believe the limit of 32 matches a year is not being enforced - and they are right. We can reveal that, according to figures provided by the RFU, three players - Mathew Tait, Tom Voyce and Paul Sackey - went over the limit in 2005-06.