Jon Cardinelli

Rugby needs revolution, not regression

While it is encouraging to see international players standing up for themselves and demanding a global season, they must not settle for a structure that's only slightly better than the existing format, writes JON CARDINELLI.

On Tuesday, the International Rugby Players Association (Irpa) reported that the players' voice had been heard and that the game's leaders are seriously considering the implementation of a global season structure in 2016.

The next two years will be key in terms of settling on a format which will suit both hemispheres and everything should be in place before new broadcast deals are finalised ahead of the 2016 season.

How does this affect the southern hemisphere competitions? Well, according to the proposal, Super Rugby will run from March to July. There will be no break for internationals in June as the Test window will be moved to the last three weeks of July. The format of a new Super Rugby competition, which should feature even more teams than before, will also change.

Three Tests will be played after Super Rugby, followed by a short break before the Rugby Championship starts. Presumably, the November Tests would remain.

Confused? Think you've missed something? Don't worry, you're not the only one.

It's great to see players making their voices heard about what is a big global problem. They want a longer pre-season and they want to play fewer games in a calendar year. If these requests were to be granted, international players would be less susceptible to injury and would ultimately enjoy longer careers.

However, I'm not sure if the proposed structure is geared towards this outcome. To me, it seems as if the 'new' structure is similar to the one that was in operation back in 2010 when Super Rugby was still a 14-team competition.

The tournament ran from mid-February to late May, and was followed by a three-Test block in June, a six-Test Tri-Nations (six Tests per team), and a three or four-Test block in November. Compare that to the proposed structure. The 2010 set-up was only slightly better.

Don't get me wrong: it's fantastic that the powers-that-be are finally listening to the players and are seriously considering change. But the change should be major instead of minor. Can you cut a few games here and there, or run Super Rugby in an uninterrupted block of four months, and sell it as revolution? Of course not.

At the end of the 2013 season, sport scientists will have a more accurate idea of how the amount of game time contributes to serious injuries. Professor Tim Noakes told this website in February that leading scientists in the field already have an idea of how fatigue leads to injuries and by December they should have more scientific data to substantiate the theories.

Noakes argues that the top players should start with a three-month pre-season and then proceed into a seven-month season. Following that, they should enjoy a two-month off-season – that is a period of no training whatsoever – as their bodies need that time to recover.

It is a template employed in other professional codes. It's crazy to think that in one of the most physically demanding sports in the world, elite players are expected to operate at maximum intensity from mid-February to early December.

Irpa should ask for more when discussing a change to the season structure. Their current proposal doesn't ask for nearly enough.

South African players in particular are at a disadvantage. New Zealand's best are centrally contracted and are thus in no danger of being overplayed during the Super Rugby season. In South Africa, however, the respective franchises have the power to use the players as they please, and as a result the national coach is often forced to operate with a fatigued or injury-hit team.

On Monday, I wrote about the British & Irish Lions series as a qualified success and stressed the need for a global season that will take player welfare into account and also ensure that we get the best rugby product.

South Africa needs to move towards a central contracting system, but the IRB and organisations such as Sanzar also have to move towards a global season format that allows for player welfare and product quality.

Rugby needs a revolution, not a regression. Players, as well as rugby's custodians, must not waste this opportunity to do what's right for the game.

Photo: BackpagePix

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