Airlines. Trains. Tube drivers. Rugby players.
Wait, what? Rugby players?
Well, it could become a very real possibility if proposals to expand the season go ahead for the 2019/20 season.
Where as in football, there are set International breaks which see players released to play for their countries without it clashing with the league; in rugby that is not the case and while the likes of Maro Itoje, Anthony Watson and George North fly the flag in the Six Nations, the Premiership and Pro14 rumble on without the star players. From the clubs point of view, these players are their employees, they want them to be running out in the league every week in a bid to securing the team a win. They pay them to play and the current international calendar means they are unavailable for a large chunk of the season.
With this in mind, and after pressure from the clubs, Premiership Rugby recently announced its intention to start its season in September and finish at the end of June, thereby creating an 11-month campaign for England internationals. The RFU were also encouraged to push for the removal of one of the two rest weeks during the Six Nations, again enabling clubs to retain their players for more league games than the current schedule allows. This was however, unanimously voted against by the other five unions within the competition.
From a commercial point of view, the benefits of a longer season are clear to see. There is more opportunity to grow revenue and sponsors involved in the game gain airtime and prevalence for more months of the year. The negotiations and lobbying between clubs, Premiership Rugby and the home nations continue.
But what about the players? They’ve been apparent spectators to the ongoing discussions about the future of their careers and despite aggrieved conversations going on behind the scenes, we’ve seen little comment from those set to be directly affected. But as the reality of an 11 month season for internationals starts to seem all the more likely, they are forcing their voices to be heard. And they make very valid points.
Christian Day, Northampton second row and chairman of the Rugby Players Association (RPA) recently wrote an honest and thought provoking article.
“Professional sport is hard; not just physically but mentally too. 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.”
The health impacts of rugby has been a hot topic the past few years, but as Christian says, it isn’t all about the affect rugby is having on the surface.
“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.”
Other England internationals such as Billy Vunipola and Joe Marler have also been quick to share their views with the word ‘strike’ increasingly cropping up in conversation. It wouldn’t be the first time England Rugby Union players have gone on strike. In 2000, members of the team went on strike over a row around pay, a day described as ‘rugby’s darkest’ by current manager at the time Clive Woodward who threatened to drop players that didn’t turn up to training. It’s all very well those on the side lines dictating how the season should be played but they aren’t the ones getting battered and bruised week in week out. It isn’t sustainable and it’s important to remember that everyone needs the opportunity to switch off, recover and recharge their batteries.
We are passionate about sport and we love any opportunity to consume it, but maybe we need to take a step back from being a fan and think about the welfare of the players we’re watching.
A strike on the tube we can deal with, but a strike from sport? Well that would be unthinkable.