Sport Rugby

Wednesday 20 September 2017

Neil Francis: We are sending a Lions team to Helmand Province to play an Isis XV in a minefield

England and Wales was a tough encounter and players need more than a week to recover from such games
England and Wales was a tough encounter and players need more than a week to recover from such games
Joe Marler has spoken out against the proposed shortening of the Six Nations season. Photo: Getty Images
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Neil Francis says it's time for powers-that-be to stop pretending they care about player welfare.

No one believes more firmly than comrade Napoleon that all animals are equal.  He would be only too happy to let you make your decisions for yourselves but sometimes you might make the wrong decisions comrades and then where should we be? 

- George Orwell, Animal Farm

Next Wednesday Warren Gatland names his 37-man squad to travel to New Zealand for a three-Test tour. It is already acknowledged as an extremely challenging tour and the responsibility of naming that squad will be as challenging as it will be to get as many Welshmen into it as possible after finishing second-last in the Six Nations Championship.

Picking a captain will also be a challenge because quite a number of eligible candidates are injured. Alun Wyn Jones and Sam Warburton, even if they go, will not be match-fit. Other players with captaincy qualifications for, say, the Wednesday team like Chris Robshaw or Greig Laidlaw - well they are injured too.

Given the recent history of injured Lions captains, Gatland has a serious decision to make. Strange how they are all injured!

Just as an aside - my bet for the death toll will be three players injured and unavailable to travel from the original squad announced. I reckon that 10 players will be sent home from the 10-match tour. The casualties of war! A small indistinguishable blip which won't sully the commercial success of the venture.

What is unmistakeable is that none of the players who go on this tour will remotely resemble the players that come back - you might see a flicker of the form that got them out there return sometime after next Christmas. They never do quite return as the players that went out, do they?

This one is about the player paradox and, to a lesser extent, the power of the media. Whenever you see a statement issued by any of the governing bodies in our sport, I love the way they sign off on their statements "with player welfare foremost in our thoughts" or "with player safety a priority."

We are sending a Lions team to Helmand Province to play an Isis XV in a minefield… with player welfare an absolute priority.

This new World Rugby calendar set to be unveiled on a drip, drip basis for 2019 - well it's good for the bean counters, the TV companies, the corporates and even the fans but for the players, particularly the elite players, it's a joke.

Further erosion on their ability to perform optimally, career longevity goes out the window; player fatigue and continuous injury profiles. It is incredible how these governing bodies get away with it.

The plan for a new, condensed Six Nations that would be run off in six weeks instead of seven is just insane. A week after the Six Nations finished, Ian Ritchie, the CEO of the RFU, in a carefully-coordinated press release, gave his backing to reduce the number of rest weekends to just one without giving one plausible or justifiable reason why it should be changed.

The message is soft-handled by the English media and, despite one or two murmurings about player welfare, nobody challenges this crazy proposal. As Orwell said, "Several of them would have protested if they could have found the right arguments."

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England's Joe Marler (C) enters the fray. Photo: Getty

Joe Marler (above), of all people, piped up and to his credit showed some backbone but is this a fait accompli?

Sometimes it is important to check the pedigree of the people who are making or endorsing these decisions.

Ritchie was interviewed for the top job in 2011 and secured it shortly afterwards. He came from the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club and whether it is relevant or not, never kicked or passed a rugby ball in his life. As Clive Woodward said about him, "zero rugby experience or knowledge".

Ritchie can pay lip service to the ravages of player fatigue but this man would have no idea how tired or continually exhausted Test players are after a Six Nations game.

To have in place in an executive role a man who simply has no idea the physical demands placed on these athletes is a very dangerous situation to be in - particularly when he wants to shorten the rest period.

This from a man who rubber-stamped Dylan Hartley's candidature for the England captaincy in the following terms.

"There is an element of balance and perspective and, if Eddie thinks Dylan first of all gets a place in the team, and secondly is the right captain, and he thinks that is the best thing to get a winning team, you put it into that perspective. I don't see it as a contradiction in what we have been trying to do and say about the values of the game."

When he made his statement calling for the condensing of the Championship, Ritchie admitted that he had not consulted the England squad or formally any of the other stakeholders in the Six Nations Championship. An incredible presumption! Deafening silence too from the player unions!

England this season played France at home and Wales away in two brutal encounters which went heavy on the physical stuff. The body needs more than six days to recover from that type of savagery. It is not croquet that they are playing.

Ritchie then used the sort of 'we are going to bomb our way to peace' language when he insisted that "provision would be made for player welfare".

It is the abracadabra words - just stick 'player welfare' after the statement and that makes everything ok.

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Ian Ritchie, the RFU chief executive

When Ritchie (above) was installed as CEO of the RFU, it was Mark McCafferty, chairman of PRL, who applauded his ascension the most. PRL want a 10-month domestic season and one of the things that gets in the way is an elongated Six Nations - can't have that interfering with the Premiership.

It's purely a personal opinion but I feel that McCafferty got his malign clutches into Ritchie and the RFU CEO is the PRL's man. I could not see any other Six Nations stakeholder wanting to or agreeing to reduce the length of the tournament.

I am not sure where the genesis of the idea came from but I'd be positive that it had less to do with the global calendar and more to do with the PRL's long-term ambitions.

In one of the reports that was manufactured for publication, the sentence ran as follows: "Any change in the calendar would be confirmed in May."

The way the sentence is constructed it seems to me that the job is already done. They are just conveying it ahead of time so that the sense of outrage will be diluted.

I could not see the Celtic nations endorsing the idea and so the French have made or have yet to make a decision.

Their national team is a shambles and the reason is two-fold. They have too many foreigners in their national league and that league runs for nearly 50 weeks for the international players. They are jellified zombies by the time the season ends. Turkeys voting for Christmas.

As Orwell said, "What you allow is what will continue."

Player welfare!!!

Irish Independent

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