Unions must protect their treasured assets
I argued here a fortnight ago, a week in advance of 'that' game in New Plymouth -- about which the less said the better -- that Ireland's current tour was basically the wrong tour at the wrong time to the wrong place for the wrong squad and, with no appetite at all to discuss last Saturday's 'match', suffice to say that events have served only to strengthen my view.
With the further extension of our already lengthy casualty list following injuries to Mick O'Driscoll and John Muldoon, not to mention the huge demands on mind and body which are an acknowledged feature of any All Black Test, one can't help but feel that the requirement, indeed obligation, for some substantive time for the players away from the 'office' is a very real one. Were the actions of Jamie Heaslip, in particular, and Ronan O'Gara consistent with their normal behaviour over the course of the season? Of course not. They were quite out of character; the actions of Heaslip were those of a mentally fatigued and jaded individual.
At the risk of coming across as somewhat old-fashioned, and possibly naive, I feel I must compare the current approach to these tours with that of my own era, whether as player or coach. Those tours were events which excited players (and management too!), were looked forward to with anticipation, and almost always looked back on in later years with great fondness. Can the same be said of our current crop? I fully acknowledge that professionalism has eroded most, if not all, of the scope for that sense of adventure, and that the ever-increasing power of the major rugby countries, relative to the supposed 'minnows', has meant that the number of genuinely testing tour destinations has decreased, but there's simply no escaping the fact that the current structure, if not fundamentally flawed, is certainly far from ideal. Too much of a good thing will inevitably result in diminished interest and performance on the part of our players and on the part of the game's other stakeholders too.
The recent announcement by the IRB of a return to something of the 'old style' tours, based on a Test 'series' as opposed to 'one-off' games, with mid-week provincial games stoking some increased local interest, is to be welcomed; nonetheless, it's not easy to escape the feeling that our sport is still struggling to find its feet as a professional, and ultimately money-driven, business; in commercial terms, the business model needs some careful adjustment.
Fundamentally, whether the tours are similar to those of old with longer trips and mid-week matches, or the fleeting visits to which we've become accustomed in recent years, the now annual trips across the equator are nothing other than money-driven reciprocal arrangements, regularly pitting a tired and injury-weakened squad of visitors against an early-season home squad still in the process of formation. Ticket revenues and proceeds of TV rights are crucially important components of national unions' annual income. Sponsorship revenues are largely success-related, and the strength of the national union's brand is also linked to the level of exposure for the corporate logo.
There are, undoubtedly, rugby-related benefits accruing from these tours in terms of squad-development, but the fact remains that the calendar is already congested and while a return to traditional tours has its attractions, the physical toll on the players will remain. It was recently announced that Ireland will tour, in the traditional meaning of the word, New Zealand (again!) in 2012. Upon that tour's completion, our best will have spent at least part of four summers out of the five from 2008 to 2012 in that Land of the Long White Cloud, with only the 2009 Lions tour to South Africa breaking the sequence.
While these tours are, of necessity, driven by the commercial interests of the unions, their success (profitability) is contingent on the quality of product on offer. In that context, our top players are the treasured asset, for supporters and unions alike, and it is because of them that the game's popularity, and profitability, has soared in the past decade. While the Irish squad currently in New Zealand, no more than any of their predecessors, was never going to be big box-office -- even without the ravages of injury, because we're simply not rated down there -- the trip nevertheless is still an essential element of the unions' financial model.
There'll be increasing question marks too around the continued viability of the British and Irish Lions tours south every four years. I'm a huge fan of the Lions as a concept and, as a rugby fan and couch potato, they provide us fantastic viewing, but it is unrealistic to deny that under the current structure within which our rugby calendar is arranged, its viability is open to question.
What are the long-term impacts of Lions selection on the players physically? The likes of Paul O'Connell, Stephen Ferris, Luke Fitzgerald, and Keith Earls certainly haven't had the seasons they had hoped for after returning from South Africa. There has to be some sort of link between workload and injury rates, and the likelihood of injuries occurring if fatigued. Certainly, Lions tours provide both players and supporters alike with a unique, and enjoyable, experience, and although I feel that the current rugby calendar is potentially incompatible with the Lions tours, I am in no way advocating their abolition. My questioning of the Lions tours, within the current structure, is purely centred on the management of our most precious resources, the players. I have already written this season of the number of championships and Grand Slams won by the non-participating French in the seasons immediately following Lions tours -- definitely not coincidental.
At this level of the game, there are always selections at which at least an eyebrow will be raised; the selection for this tour, however, was more significant for its omissions, and indeed subsequent withdrawals -- there's a very respectable team of internationals on this island today, watching their pals on TV, who, if fit, would be well able to perform at Test level. Some of these would be better employed Down Under; others will benefit more from remaining at home.
The same can be said of the travelling party; a few will benefit from the experience -- Niall Ronan, Gavin Duffy, Tony Buckley, Jonny Sexton and Rhys Ruddock to name some -- and a few would have been better off at home. The sight of the Irish medical team being called on to the field during the opening quarter of Friday's game against the Maori was disquieting. It is imperative that players' welfare is kept to the forefront of the minds of our game's legislators. To do otherwise would be to risk the possibility that supporters will tire of a constant diet of same ole, same ole, vote with their feet, and bring their wallets with them.