Authors: Rio Sports
It was fitting that the Premiership dropped into the United States last weekend in a month when high‑profile players have added their support to calls for strike action as a last resort should proposals to expand the season by a month from 2019-20 go ahead.
Professional sport in the US has a history of strikes. The 1994-95 dispute in baseball was the longest, lasting 232 days and making 1994 the first year without a World Series for 90 years. American football, basketball, ice hockey and even football have all been hit by walkouts, with salary caps and owners’ demands to be compensated for the loss of players as free agents usually at the centre of a dispute.
In rugby union, players in the professional era have tended to be spectators as clubs and unions exchange threats and point to the law courts, but the unilateral decision of Premiership Rugby this year to increase the length of the season from 2019, when campaigns in Europe will start at the beginning of October rather than September, has aroused anger among the participants in a sport that is taking an increasing physical toll. How many matches have there been in this season’s Premiership without a player going off for a head-injury assessment?
The English clubs moved quickly after the agreement earlier this year to better align the seasons in the two hemispheres, seizing an extra month of the year and persuading the Rugby Football Union to lobby the Six Nations committee and the four home unions committee to reduce the length of the championship and a Lions tour respectively.
The union found itself in a minority on each occasion and the clubs, most of whom are still struggling to achieve profitability 22 years after amateurism’s drawbridge was hauled up, have suggested that England and France sit out the opening weekend of the Six Nations, which would allow the league programme the previous week to include national squad members, and play each other on week three, the first fallow weekend of the tournament.
It was not that long ago that there was a lobby for England and France to meet on the final weekend of the championship as they were the most likely winners of the tournament and by trying to draw up the fixture list in a tournament they are not part of, the clubs are crossing a boundary. The RFU, under new management, should not be pushed around.
The clubs point out that the assets of the teams in the Six Nations are their employees and they, naturally, want them for more league matches than they are available for currently. Expanding the season, even by four weeks, will free up weekends, but just as owners assert their proprietorial rights, so the players have grown fed up of being taken for granted and squeezed for every last drop.
By seeing a longer season as a way to greater revenue, the clubs resemble evening newspapers of 20 years ago who responded to falling circulations by continually bringing deadlines forward to ensure longer shelf time, reaching the point where they were printed overnight to compete with the mornings. A number have since closed.
It is questionable now whether players have a long enough break at the end of the season, especially those at clubs who are involved in the final knockings of tournaments in May. Maro Itoje played 22 matches for Saracens last season and five for England, missing November through injury, and in the summer made six appearances, two off the bench, for the Lions. He has started his club’s first three games of the season, and is young enough physically to cope with the strain of playing and training. But mentally?
“Professional sport is hard; not just physically but mentally too,” said the Northampton second row Christian Day, the chairman of the Rugby Players’ Association. “I have broken more bits of my body than I would care to mention. I have undergone surgery multiple times and been hospitalised many more. The constant pressure of performance and results is a relentless cycle that never seems to stop until the final whistle of your final game. From the top to the bottom of the club you represent, we live or die on results. Not getting the right results? Well you might not get paid next year. Long contracts are rare, job security is doubtful.”
Day pointed out that the off season was the one respite from the cycle of pressure players face. “You book a last-minute holiday, soak up some sun, YOU FORGET. This guaranteed period of rest is important. It’s crucial. It’s vital!” A longer season means a shorter break. “The darkest problems that sports people experience are often those that are seldom talked about. Everyone can see the physical injuries and their impact. But the mental strain associated with professional sport cannot be underestimated. Individuals are starting to speak out about their own struggles. I have known friends and team-mates whose battles off the field far outweighed what happened on it. My personal belief is that adding another month is too much.”
Day was the first player to use the word strike when he challenged Premiership Rugby’s decision earlier this year. England internationals such as Billy Vunipola and Joe Marler have adopted it this month. If owners ignore their players, assuming they will not put words into action, unlike the England squad in 2000 who went on strike in a dispute over pay, they should be mindful of what has happened in the United States.
“I don’t think the owners took the players seriously,” said an agent at the time of the 103-day strike in ice hockey in 1994-95. “It was not until the strike that they understood the players were serious.” The issue in English rugby is well-being rather than pay, but for clubs and unions, cash is king, which is why Wales are playing South Africa at the beginning of December, the equivalent of whipping knackered horses. Players, and the paying public, deserve better.
• This is an extract taken from the Breakdown, the ’s weekly rugby union email. To subscribe, just visit this page and follow the instructions.
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