Sick and tired of the seemingly endless season

Hugh Godwin warns that players are being pushed past their breaking point
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The Independent Online

Everyone, from Rob Andrew in his masterplan drawn up for the Rugby Football Union to wealthy club owners such as Gloucester's Tom Walkinshaw, acknowledges the urgent need to reduce player burn-out as the result of too many fixtures. Yet the longest-ever season in English rugby has already kicked off with worryingly few signs that the problem is about to be solved. The professional players - some of them highly paid, all of them highly competitive - need to be saved from themselves.

Everyone, from Rob Andrew in his masterplan drawn up for the Rugby Football Union to wealthy club owners such as Gloucester's Tom Walkinshaw, acknowledges the urgent need to reduce player burn-out as the result of too many fixtures. Yet the longest-ever season in English rugby has already kicked off with worryingly few signs that the problem is about to be solved. The professional players - some of them highly paid, all of them highly competitive - need to be saved from themselves.

The players' union, the Professional Rugby Players' Association (PRA), are forcing the issue by seeking a mandatory rest period in the close season, and a limit to the number of matches their members are required to take part in. In a week when the London Irish director of rugby, Dick Best, warned that brain injuries among players are likely to increase, and England's most charismatic player, Lawrence Dallaglio, continued to take an enforced break from the sport, the PRA line must be applauded.

Dallaglio, shattered after 44 matches in the last year and needing to rest a groin injury, will again be on the sidelines when his club, Wasps, take on Bath in the Zurich Premiership this afternoon, their second fixture of a season that could stretch to 40 matches if they carry off the four main trophies on offer. On top of that, England have their now-customary schedule of eight Test matches, and then there is the high-profile Lions tour of Australia to round it all off. Nigel Melville, Wasps' director of rugby, sums up a grim tale with suitably gallows humour: "I don't think too many of our boys will play more than 35 matches this year, because they will be either injured or knackered."

The PRA's secretary, Damian Hopley, like Dallaglio and Melville a star of Wasps and England until a knee injury cut short his career, receives mounting evidence of player fatigue by the day. "There is too much rugby being played," said Hopley. "Matt Dawson [the North-ampton and England scrum-half] played two critical games for his club when he was carrying an injury at the end of last season and now he is out until October. Last weekend there was a horrific catalogue of injuries in the Zurich Premiership, and things will only get worse. I have spoken a lot to the England team doctors and they have reports to prove that wear and tear on players is growing."

Hopley is encouraged by the example Wasps have set with Dallaglio, who will delay his season's debut until at least the second week of September. But the players' principal employers, the cash-hungry clubs, are keen to get spectators' bums on seats as often as possible in a packed season, and Melville admits to ever-present pressure to field his best team. "The players should have two or even three months' rest in the summer," he said. "The only way to do that is to play fewer matches, or have larger squads, which in itself is difficult because of the squad wage cap."

Hopley is taking his lead from the rugby powers of the southern hemisphere, who have won all four World Cups to date, and place much less strain on their star performers. The current world champions, Australia, are due at Twickenham on 18 November to play England. The Wallabies' probable captain, John Eales, will be rounding off a 12-month period in which he will have been on call for, at most, 26 matches, including Super 12, interstate and friendly matches for Queensland, and nine Tests and a tour match for Australia. During the same calendar year, Eales' English counterpart, Martin Johnson, would, but for injury, have expected to clock up around 46 matches for club and country. As things stand, Johnson has been "spared" (in an echo of Melville's dire prediction) by missing 16 of those 46 matches with an Achilles injury and concussion.

"The bottom line is the players' welfare," said Hopley. "From Tom Walkinshaw downwards there is a will to restrict the number of matches to 36, but that's still way too high. It should be 30 a year - 20 for club and 10 for country." Another factor is that club rugby has replaced the counties and divisions as the only proving ground on which players can push their international claims. "It is important that England are successful on the world stage," said Melville. "That cannot be neglected for the sake of the clubs."

The Irish RFU have protected their players for the past 18 months by resisting moves for a 22-match Celtic League, but it seems they too are about to give way to the seemingly unstoppable urge to play more rugby. "We are building players up, making them stronger to hit each other harder," said Melville. "We must be very careful not to sacrifice quality for quantity."

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