Club v Country conflict rears its ugly head again

So that lasted a long time. The fragile peace between club and country has begun to show cracks already with leading Premiership coaches speaking out against what they see as a lack of common sense and even-handedness from the England management. Ian McGeechan was typically diplomatic when asked about Paul Sackey’s withdrawal from the Wasps team at the request of the England management but his frustration was plain for all to see.

Eddie Jones, a rather less diplomatic character, described the rules as a ‘contradiction’, contending that ‘you should have your best players playing’. He was asked to rest Steve Borthwick for Saracens’ clash with Gloucester, a game which they lost but not altogether unexpectedly.

McGeechan’s displeasure stems from the fact that, after resting 9 players for Wasps’ humiliation at Sale last week, the England doctors insisted on a fitness test for Paul Sackey before Sunday’s game against Harlequins, after which they withdrew him from the team. McGeechan insists that Sackey was fitter than he was before playing against South Africa in November (which given Sackey’s performance that day may explain a lot).

He adds that the clubs are happy to cooperate but that common sense needs to be shown on the part of the England management. Furthermore, players like Ugo Monye and Nick Easter played all four autumn tests but as they are not in the Elite Squad, the England management cannot ask for them to be rested. Tom Palmer on the other hand played only 2 games and had to be rested last week.

So what is the solution? There were always going to be teething problems and years of conflict was not going to be resolved with the stroke of a pen. The problem is that, unlike in other countries, the clubs are independent entities from the RFU. Therefore, while willing to cooperate, self-interest will always come into play. The clubs are businesses and if they have to make sacrifices which will potentially weaken their position, they want to make sure it is done fairly and reasonably.

But the England management are merely enforcing the agreement to which the clubs signed up. The clubs cannot complain that Martin Johnson and co are working outside the terms of the agreement. It is inevitable that at times the interests of the two parties will conflict. It is a shame though that these conflicts have reared their heads at the first hurdle. It suggests either that more tactfulness and understanding needs to be shown by both sides, or that the agreement is unworkable.

For their part, England must be prepared to listen to the opinions of the clubs and their medical teams. The Wasps physios work with Sackey every day and the club have a long-term investment in the player. They are not going to damage him by insisting he plays when not fit. The clubs meanwhile are going to have to accept the new environment in which they are working. McGeechan was aggrieved about one or two individual decisions taken by England about whom to rest. Eddie Jones however was hitting out at the whole agreement. Well sorry, but his club signed up to it a few short months ago so he does not have a leg to stand on.

It is almost impossible that English rugby will go down the franchise route of other countries as so much power now lies with the clubs. English rugby supporters would not stand for it either. Therefore this conflict-of-interest will always exist. It is early days in the agreement and both sides need to get used to it and find a way of working together. Lessons must be learned from this first hiccup.

2 thoughts on “Club v Country conflict rears its ugly head again

  1. What’s needed here is some trust and cooperation between the RFU and the clubs. It’s true that the issues discussed above are consistent with the agreement everyone signed up for, but a little bit of flexibility – for example allowing for cup games to count as rest weeks, as EJ had suggested – would go a long way. The RFU has needed the clubs to be flexible and give a little more in the past, and they have often agreed. But the current situation encourages all parties to stick to the letter of the agreement, which is not good for either side.

    I hope both the clubs and the RFU reflect on how Rob Andrew’s main attraction (I assume, ie there’s nothing else) was his ability to build a trusting relationship with the clubs… and that he has failed.

  2. It’s not helped either by the RFU getting greedy and cramming 4 fixtures in to the Autumn series. Their usual excuse for doing this is that it follows a World Cup year in which they usually make a loss due to the lack of Autumn Internationals at HQ, but as has been well documented, they still made a profit in 2007.

    I remember thinking when the deal was announced that it was good news, but there could be problems around players that get brought in from outside the Elite squad. We need to be able to plan around this when it happens, because it will always happen that some players emerge early in a season that look to have England potential. You’d hope that a man on £400k with international experience as a player would be alert to this and plan for it.

    Maybe in future when someone plays for England they have to be added to the Elite squad for the remainder of that season, and the club and the RFU agree between them (what a novel idea eh?) how many more games that player should play before the end of that season.

    Anyway, to end on a happy note, although the agreement isn’t working as planned, at least there’s only 7 and a half more years of it!

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