The Offload: Early retirements show capricious nature of sport

An insight into Alain Rolland, Top 14 nears return and Crusaders’ home run ends

Niall Saunders and Ben Betts, members of the Ireland Under-20 squad that reached the Junior World Championship final in 2016, have both retired from professional rugby recently. It underlines the capricious nature of sport.

Saunders, a son of former Ireland scrumhalf Rob, has bravely fought since childhood a blood disorder called ITP (Idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura, sometimes referred to as immune thrombocytopenia) where his antibodies believe his platelets are a virus, attack them and rid them from the body.

On the spectrum of being a haemophiliac but without being one, he attended some of the top specialists in the world seeking a solution and despite playing briefly for Harlequins last season, including a Champions Cup game against Ulster, he's decided to retire aged, 22.

Betts, 23, spent two years with the Leicester Tigers - he played against Castres in a Champions Cup match - enjoying loan spells with Ealing Trailfinders and Nottingham but after signing a contract with Doncaster he secured a release to return to Limerick and take up a full-time job outside professional rugby. There is a suggestion that he will line out with his former club Young Munster, albeit as an amateur.

Clubs take on the world

World Rugby is set to announce its proposed Test match schedule for the remainder of the year following a meeting on Thursday but their recommendations to play internationals starting on October 24th through to December 5th - they have budgeted for a rest weekend on November 7th - has not met with the approval of the League Nationale de Rugby (LNR) the umbrella body for the French clubs and their English counterparts at Premiership Rugby.

The proposal is to complete the outstanding fixtures in the 2020 men's and women's Six Nations Championship - Andy Farrell's Ireland will host Italy on October 24th and then travel to Paris the following Saturday - before confirming an eight team tournament with matches starting on November 14th and leading to a final on December 5th.

World Rugby formally announced their intentions last week. In response a Premiership rugby statement read: “Premiership Rugby now urges World Rugby to restart the global discussions to unify the Unions and professional leagues and agree to a temporary plan that works for all.

“We regret World Rugby’s unilateral decision to impose changes in the international calendar on our clubs through a temporary amendment to regulation nine (it governs player release for internationals), when progress is being made with the RFU to reach a compromise for the benefit of all.”

The LNR adopted a similar tone: “If this extension of the international window covered by rule nine is adopted for the fall of 2020 by the World Rugby council on July 30th, it will be a unilateral and unbalanced decision, taken against the position of the professional leagues, and in particular of the LNR which expressed on several occasions its disagreement with World Rugby during the last weeks.”

The LNR and Premiership Rugby are unequivocal in their stance but it’s unlikely to have a material impact on World Rugby’s proposed fixture route map, which has been made public, minus the specifics. If the unions had serious objections to the proposed Test schedule then World Rugby would not have made the statement of intent, albeit slightly couched in tone. The best the clubs can hope for is a minor accommodation somewhere in the window.

Quote of the week

“We played well enough to win. They just won those key moments, that’s footy. We can reflect on a lot of things in that game we could have done better. Congratulate them.” Crusaders coach Scott Robertson after his side’s 34-32 defeat to the Hurricanes, their first at home since 2016.

Number’s game: 3

The number of friendly matches that the French Top 14 clubs will play starting early next month ahead of the new season, which is due to start on September 4th when Stade Francais host Bordeaux-Begles at the Stade Jean Bouin.

Tough but fair

Nigel Owens offered a personal insight into his relationship with Alain Rolland, who recently stepped down as World Rugby's high performance 15s match officials' manager after four years, including receiving a warning from the Irishman that his performances would have to improve if he wanted to officiate at last year's World Cup in Japan.

The Welsh referee, writing in his column for the Western Mail newspaper, explained: “ahead of the appointments for last year’s World Cup, Rollars pulled me to one side and told me a couple of my more recent performances were not up to my usual standard. And he was right. ‘Nige, you need to get back to your best. I’m not going to recommend you for the World Cup unless I’m convinced you’re still good enough to do knockout games’.

Owens responded in a positive manner to what he called a "kick up the backside," and was awarded the semi-final in which England beat New Zealand and made the shortlist to referee the final; Jerome Garces was eventually chosen for that match.

He also praised Rolland as a referee stating: “Rollars would never let a sense of occasion, hostile atmosphere, intimidating crowd or criticism, get to him. He made the right calls as he saw them at the time and refused to let external factors have any bearing upon that decision-making process.”