The recent announcement of England prop Joe Marler’s international retirement at the age of 28 has once again brought the question of player welfare into focus for professional rugby players as well as the men calling the shots at World Rugby.
Citing his desire to spend more time with his young family, 2017 Lion Marler admitted that after six years of international rugby he no longer felt able to give all of himself to the England cause.
In the short-term, it denies Eddie Jones an experienced and valued squad member a year out from a Rugby World Cup.
In the long-term, Marler may prove to be something of a trail-blazer in players stepping away from the increasing pressures and rigours of test-match rugby, choosing to prioritise their own health and family life over longer careers.
With rugby union becoming increasingly popular the world over, the demands on modern-day internationals have never been so high with increasing fixture loads meaning even more games are played at the devastating intensity that only test match rugby brings.
In just over a month’s time the home nations will welcome their southern hemisphere rivals for this year’s autumn internationals, with highly-anticipated clashes such as England versus New Zealand and Wales versus Australia likely to see sell-out crowds converge on to the streets of London and Cardiff respectively.
Whilst the appetite for these types of fixtures exists there will be more and more demand for these test matches, yet with some players likely to play as many as 12 tests in a year on top of competing for the highest domestic and European honours at club level, how much is too much?
Last weekend saw Midlands-rivals Leicester Tigers and Northampton Saints face off in the Aviva Premiership at Twickenham with proceeds from the match going to former Saints and Wallabies winger Rob Horne and his family following his sudden retirement from the sport due to injury.
After injuring himself in the opening exchanges of Northampton’s match against the Tigers in April of this year, Horne was subsequently left with the tragic news that he had suffered severe nerve damage and paralysis in his right arm, forcing him to retire at the age of 28.
Just a couple of months later two-times British and Irish Lions captain Sam Warburton confirmed the news that many had feared following another long spell on the sidelines, that he had to call time on his professional career with medics and consultants advising him that carrying on may cause serious damage to his future physical health and well-being.
Unlike football – where many players choose to retire early to focus on prolonging club careers – international test-match rugby remains the king in union, and its crown is unlikely to slip anytime soon with Japan 2019 fast approaching.
Yet serious attention needs to be paid to the number of games international stars are expected to play over the course of their careers.
With the Six Nations, summer tours and autumn internationals sandwiched in between gruelling club seasons, many internationals get very little time off with just a couple of weeks separating the end of a summer tour and the start of pre-season, often leading to players suffering burn-out.
A case in point would be 23-year-old England lock Maro Itoje, who after a storming couple of success-laden seasons with Saracens, England and the British and Irish Lions, suffered a brief nose-dive in form early this year likely to have come about from the exhausting demands of a punishing fixture schedule.
Of course, with the financial rewards of test matches being more lucrative than ever restricting the number of matches in a calendar year isn’t something that the decision-makers at the top of world rugby will take lightly, but it is quite clear that something needs to be done to protect the physical and mental well-being of current internationals both now and for the future.
So where does World Rugby start?
Well ‘meaningless’ warm-up matches such as England’s clash with Wales in the summer of 2016 and Wales’ farcical meeting with South Africa in Washington this year could be the first to go.
Two-match summer tours to the Southern Hemisphere in place of the traditional three-match schedule may be slightly more challenging to pass through but in the long-run may benefit international teams, whilst a maximum of three matches in the end-of-year internationals would further lighten the load for players already pushed to the limits.
A mandatory six-week complete break from any rugby for all professionals – international or otherwise – may also be something worth looking into.
There are plans afoot from World Rugby to ‘create an annual programme of meaningful matches that will unlock new markets, attract new fans and grow commercial revenues for all’, which doesn’t sound like it would lead to a reduction in fixtures. Adding more ‘meaningful’ matches may indeed make it harder for players to be rested.
Unless serious change is made how many more will follow Marler in bowing out early?