It looks like recent efforts by players, administrators and coaches to push the governing bodies to institute a synchronous global rugby season between northern and southern hemispheres have come to naught. The NFL and NRL both have mandatory 16 week breaks between seasons. Whereas top level rugby union players in the Southern Hemisphere, in order to fit in with northern hemisphere international playing windows, only get four to five weeks off to recover each year!
In their inevitable retirement from sports, players in their 30s and 40s face a life with a broken body, chronic pain and mental illness. The obvious physicality of rugby has changed very little over the years with the exception of the pace and the length of the season which continues to increase. Broadcasters want more games and rugby’s regional governing bodies want more money with the welfare of the players taking a backseat.
The existing season format in the southern hemisphere delivers 14 international tests a year in addition to 25 weeks of Super Rugby for top level players. Current deals between broadcasters and rugby’s governing bodies like SANZAR interrupt the Super Rugby season to allow the June international tests, effectively placing that tournament on hiatus to accommodate international tours from the northern hemisphere. Super Rugby then resumes through July and August, followed by the Rugby Championship which commences the full international test season.
Players who are not selected for the international sides have a little relief, continuing in their domestic tournaments in New Zealand and South Africa which end in October. While the players who have not been selected to represent their country enjoy an 11-12 week break, the internationals continue until the last week of November.
Contact sports like rugby put players’ bodies through enormous physical abuse over their years crashing into one another on the pitch. Calls for better monitoring and treatment of concussions have been growing among leading sports authorities around the world. Rugby players selected for international sides receive the worst of it with no sign of the seasons getting shorter despite efforts by the International Rugby Players Association attempting to bring the governing bodies to the table.
One simple solution is to move the June internationals to late July, allowing Super Rugby to conclude and creating an unbroken second half of the year for international tests. Meanwhile, the New Zealand Rugby Union clearly has no intention of shortening the playing season despite giving players its sympathy. The NZRU added a 14th Test this year against Japan and will likely repeat this in 2014 with a match in the USA in the name of exporting the brand.
So, will players continue to exhaust themselves, heighten the frequency of injury and shorten their careers? It seems it doesn’t matter who is wearing the jersey, so long as the financial machine keeps on moving. A far cry from Rugby Union’s once vaunted idealism. But what can be done to protect the players if one of the longest playing seasons of any contact sport can not be reduced in length? Are players going to be the victims? Or is the expectation for them to play every game of the season simply unrealistic?
The NZRU has tried several tactics to protect and prolong its key All Blacks, using the rotation of players in the starting XV and more recently, six month sabbaticals. Conrad Smith is currently on sabbatical, following Richie McCaw’s example. It worked wonders for McCaw as he was finally able to get over compounded injuries and rekindle his passion and energy for the game. However, paid leave is only an option for star players.
With little other choice available for players to survive, rotation seems like the only available option. With this in mind, perhaps the tour squads need to be expanded, much like the All Blacks have done in 2013, albeit with financial resources to do so thanks to healthy sponsorship deals. With a wider squad, players can routinely be rested and their physical work load reduced with the added benefit of building depth for the side.
The dangers of not managing player welfare may be bad news for the fans and national pride, but it is far worse for the players themselves. Look at Dan Carter, a player whose talents are universally recognized, yet he has suffered a string of injuries that have denied him continuity of play since the 2011 World Cup. In 2013 he managed only a handful of games before celebrating his 100th cap by hobbling off the pitch at Twickenam in the 25th minute with an ankle injury. He will now start his six month sabbatical rehabilitating rather than recovering.
Top level international rugby is brutal. All Blacks who struggled to make the Starting XV have taken lucrative off shore contracts to play shortened, less merciless seasons in Japan. They are thinking of their future beyond rugby and making the most of their personal playing window. Arguably, they can make more money and prolong their careers outside of the international destruction derby.
Perhaps the onus is on the coaches and selectors. Perhaps the culture itself needs to evolve. Selectors must take more deliberate and overt steps to manage their players with the stress and endurance of the year long season in mind.