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.