If this week's events have proved anything, it is that rugby’s players can no longer trust those who govern them. The contract is broken. The gloves are off.
A game once fictitiously presented as the preserve of the gentleman amateur is now being run by a cabal claiming on one hand (and with a straight face) “player welfare is our number one priority” while using the other to carve deals which show scant disregard for those brave enough to play the game.
Last year it was Premier Rugby in England who ignored the Rugby Players Association’s pleas not to extend the domestic season and now World Rugby are looking to lump even more Test matches onto players whose bodies, and minds in some cases, are already routinely broken by rugby’s relentless scheduling.
All in the pursuit of bigger television deals, more eyeballs, new markets. An almost evangelical obsession with “growing the game” is ignoring the scale of the human cost which will inevitably result. It is truly grim stuff.
The proposed 12-nation league, which does not include the Pacific Islands, despite years of the piously termed “tier one” syphoning off talent to such an extent it would have crushed less proud nations, is an abomination.
Good on Johnny Sexton, Owen Farrell and Kieran Read for the statement they released under the umbrella of the increasingly relevant International Rugby Players group. They described World Rugby’s leaked proposals as “out of touch”. They could have gone so much further.
Time after time we hear those who run rugby make bold claims about player welfare, improvements in concussion protocols and medical care in general. Some improvements have been made for sure. But we are all dancing on the head of a pin unless somebody, somewhere takes proactive action to dramatically reduce the number of matches demanded of these players.
Let’s put it into context. Kyle Sinckler made 20 tackles in 57 minutes against Wales last week. Half of that time England had the ball (when he carried relentlessly) and half again the ball was out of play. So put another way, England’s 25-year-old prop made 20 tackles in around 14 minutes of Wales having possession. Almost all of them thunderous. It was astonishing he could even walk from the field when he was substituted.
We know injuries are getting worse. We know concussion rates are up. We know mental health issues are becoming more and more prevalent in the professional game. We know it’s all unsustainable. Yet still we plough on.
And it’s not just World Rugby threatening the health and welfare of these young men, which they claim to prioritise.
Last year’s abhorrent decision to extend the Premiership season to 10 months flew in the face of everything the players – the people who enable the sport to exist – had begged for. They threatened strike action then, before pulling back from the brink.
How much more emboldened will they be if these barmy proposals are driven through at a national level?
“It’s become very clear that the game’s administration has no conscience,” former England captain Phil Vickery tweeted on Friday. Spot on, Phil.
Why should the players put up with this? The administrators of a sport which routinely, and possibly uniquely, describes its participants as “servants” is doing them a disservice once again.
It is wrong, wrong, wrong to layer on even more Test matches to an already bloated international schedule.
Before we even start with the damage it would do to the integrity of the Six Nations competition or the World Cup why don’t we start by discussing the damage it will do to players’ bodies?
World Rugby reacted haughtily to the International Rugby Players wholly commendable statement.
“World Rugby’s commitment to player welfare matters is unwavering and we will continue to engage and give full consideration to the welfare of players within the ongoing discussions,” a World Rugby statement read, before adding: “This project has at its heart long-term growth and stability, not short-term wins, and that includes greater opportunity for players.”
That last line is revealing. “Greater opportunity for players.” They mean greater pay cheques. The implication? If it doesn’t happen, you’ll be financially worse off.
Premier Rugby used precisely the same tactic in railroading their entirely commercially driven programme through last year. Publicly talk up player welfare, privately point to financial losses if the players don’t agree. It’s clever stuff, if you think about it.
Which brings us back to Tuilagi. Some have talked of the loyalty shown by Leicester Tigers in nursing him through an awful period of injuries. They’ve stuck by him, yes. Been loyal? Maybe.
But make no mistake, Leicester would have been ruthless if they hadn’t thought Tuilagi would provide a financial return at some point. Just ask Lewis Moody. A one-club man cast adrift with a broken body aged 30 for daring to stand his ground in contract negotiations.
Tuilagi’s career could come crashing down at any time. For a professional rugby player, potentially career-ending injuries lurk around almost every corner. Loyalty no longer works both ways. The players cannot trust their bosses.
£2.5m over three years with a young family to consider? No brainer.
Tuilagi, just like all rugby’s professional players, should take every penny they can get from the sport while they can.
If everyone else is doing it, why shouldn’t they?
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