Gerry Thornley: Players entitled to strike if Six Nations is condensed

Principle of player welfare completely ignored by Premiership Rugby’s proposal

Players who start five Six Nations games over seven weeks already admit they are shattered, both mentally and physically by their exertions. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Players who start five Six Nations games over seven weeks already admit they are shattered, both mentally and physically by their exertions. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

 

The proposal by the English clubs and their owners, in the guise of their umbrella organisation Premiership Rugby, to condense the Six Nations into a five- or six-week window, and which has been predictably and meekly acceded to by the RFU, gives the lie to the notion that ‘player welfare’ is even one of their primary considerations.

 If that was the case, they’d have consulted the Rugby Players Association (RPA). Of course, they did nothing of the sort.

 Indeed, initially, PRL proposed to truncate the Six Nations window into five consecutive weeks, which in terms of the demands placed on frontline players borders on cruel.

Any player who starts five Six Nations games over seven weeks generally admits they are shattered, both mentally and physically, from the toll this places on them. And that, of course, is if they are fortunate enough to avoid injury.

The point being that were the players asked to play five consecutive internationals in the increasingly physical demands of Test rugby, the rate of injuries would assuredly increase.  

 The RFU have conceded to a compromise of losing just one of the two fallow weekends and thus running the world’s oldest international tournament off in six weeks, as this would “help with the broader narrative”. Whatever the hell that means.

 A condensed Six Nations would, of course, suit England and, perhaps, France to a lesser extent, more than the Celtic nations or Italy given the greater strength-in-depth England and France possess.

They could more readily replace injured players or rotate their squads. The notion that the Six Nations would thus, of necessity, be obliged to feature more rotation of players is risible.

 When Italy were admitted to the Six Nations in 2000, the tournament was a ten-week tournament, with matches every fortnight. The schedule was reduced to its current format of five rounds over seven weeks, thereby incorporating fallow weekends after the second and third rounds, in 2003.

 In other words, the current system has worked fine for 17 years, allowing for the organisers’ and television companies foisting Friday night and Sunday afternoon games on travelling fans, not to mention the resultant, ad hoc six-day turnarounds for some squads.

 The mix of colours and supporters is one of the tournament’s abiding strengths. But as an aside, a five or six-week tournament would create further difficulties for would-be, travelling supporters.

Negative impact

 No doubt the proponents of this condensed Six Nations would argue that the World Cup is run off over seven weeks, in effect, and thus incorporates seven games for the four semi-finals on successive weeks. However, that overlooks some key differences.

 Squads prepare for a World Cup over an extended period of time, with a few warm-up matches, and with a mix of matches against tier one and two countries, can more readily facilitate rotating squads of 30 players.

 Even then it takes a heavy toll. Think of the fall-out from Ireland’s pool deciding win over France, which left Paul O’Connell, Johnny Sexton, Peter O’Mahony and Jared Payne all sidelined with injury, as well as the suspended Sean O’Brien, for their quarter-final a week later against Argentina. A more condensed Six Nations will ensure more of that.

 Recall as well the fall-out from Scotland’s defeat to France in Paris.

Not alone were Josh Strauss and Greig Laidlaw ruled out of the tournament but around half the 23-man squad weren’t fit enough to attend the post-match function. If there hadn’t been a fallow week following that game, they would probably have been without even more players for the Wales fixture a fortnight later.

 Injuries have always been a feature of the Six Nations, but halving the number of fallow weeks from two to one will invariably make that impact even more pronounced. And bearing in mind how the Italians usually struggle with the second of back-to-back games, heaven knows how they’d cope if, at some juncture, three games in successive weeks were foisted upon them.

 The proposal to truncate the Six Nations window to five or six weeks is one that PRL has put forth within the current framework, and is distinct from World Rugby’s pronouncements on a new global season, to come into effect in 2020, and which did encompass consultation with players’ associations.

Global calendar

 The PRL/RFU proposal only affects Northern Hemisphere tier one nations. No names have been associated with this proposal, but we’re told that the proponents argue that it will safeguard the Six Nations retaining its traditional February/March slot in the newly proposed global calendar.

 Ah, how good of them! How opportunistic more like.

 Given their expressed desire to extend the Premiership season into June, while still commencing in September, this appears to be a blatant attempt by PRL to wedge more club matches into the year. 

 Amid a fairly alarming lack of debate across the water – where whatever the clubs say is seemingly taken as gospel – it is to Joe Marler’s immense credit that he publicly described the idea of condensing the Six Nations as “ridiculous”. George Ford has also expressed his concerns over a condensed Six Nations.

 The Welsh, Scottish and Irish Unions are all opposed to the PRL/RFU proposal, while the RPA chairman, Christian Day, has even hinted at strike action and the chief executive, Damian Hopley, has said “there’s some way to go” with regard to actively making player welfare a number one priority as opposed to paying lip-service to the idea.

 The Irish Rugby Union Players Association (IRUPA) are also steadfastly opposed to the move and, in the unlikely event that this proposal was somehow ever forced through, players associations everywhere would be completed entitled to take strike action.

gthornley@irishtimes.com

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