Could Saracens’ defeat be a blessing in disguise?

George Kruis

Saracens 19-30 defeat at the hands of Leinster means there will be no Premiership representative in the semi-finals of the Champions Cup this year. The defending champions were out-played by a fit and ruthless Leinster team, in a game which had more than a passing resemblance to Ireland’s grand-slam completing victory over England.

With three Pro14 sides, Munster, Scarlets and Leinster, and French Top14 team Racing 92 making up the semi-finalists – and after Saracens were the only Premiership side to make the quarters – it has been a thoroughly underwhelming European season for Premiership clubs.

There is a weird perversity to me suggesting this, but I would argue, in the long run, this could actually be a blessing in disguise for some of the Saracens players – if not the club – and benefit England as well.

Tired legs
With England disappointing in the Six Nations this year, commentators like Sir Clive Woodward have remarked that key English players looked tired and below their very best – among them Saracens players such as Mako Vunipola, Jamie George and Maro Itoje.

Itoje may have tried to dispute the claims with his sleeping try celebration against Harlequins the other week, and all of those guys are brilliant players, but even if he feels he is still delivering I think it is fair to say that he is not at the same level as the past two seasons.

While I cannot celebrate the Premiership not having representation in the final four of the top European competition, too many of England’s best players are suffering for form and look in need of a rest, and added European knock-out rugby would not have helped that. But far more importantly, there is the increasing danger of injury to over-worked players.

Risk of injury
Arguably just too much rugby is being asked of players. A study by the Australian Institute of Sport recommended that the ideal number of games for developing players is 15-20 and no more than 34, while research by Bath University examined seven seasons of premiership rugby and concluded that those playing more than 35 games in a 12-month period were at substantially higher risk of injury.

When you look at the number of games Saracens played last year, in a year which included winning the Champions Cup and reaching the semis of the Premiership, coupled with England duty, there are a huge number of games for players to be involved with. Four autumn internationals and five Six Nations games for England, nine Champions Cup matches, and a possible 18 Premiership games (when you factor crossover with the Six Nations) take you to 36 matches. That is before the Lions tour is considered, where out of a possible 10 games, you might expect test players to feature in six or seven. I have ignored the Anglo-Welsh cup.

The Elite Player Squad agreement between clubs and RFU limits the number of games for players at 32, the figure set when the agreement was first struck in 2008 and was labelled ‘completely arbitrary’ in 2016 by Christian Day, the Northampton lock and then RPA chairman. It has never really been enforced.

Obviously injury and coaches resting their players make those more extreme figures unlikely – and I haven’t had time to scour the team-sheets for every game yet to give an completely accurate assessment – but it is worth bearing in mind Dan Cole clocked an eye-watering 41 matches in 2012/13 season, when the previous Lions tour took place. Although even then he still didn’t break the EPS limit of 32, as it is based on total minutes, not appearances.

Cole was injured later in the 2013/14 season and had to have an operation to replace the worn-out disc in his spine. In fact, his club Leicester Tigers provided five players to that Lions tour, with Manu Tuilagi, Geoff Parling, Tom Croft, Ben Youngs featuring alongside Cole. All suffered serious injuries the next season. 2017 Lions stars Anthony Watson and Courtney Lawes are already out for the rest of the season.

As far back as 2006, the Rugby Players Association polled players and found 60%, including 77% of EPS players, think they play too much rugby. I doubt that sentiment has improved.

A problem for the Premiership
Alongside a shorter preseason due to the Lions tour, the game is also getting more physical, with a higher ball-in-play time and featuring more collisions. We await the statistics from this season, but from watching I feel there has been a higher rate of injury.

It is a slightly different story for the Pro14 clubs, who are able to rest players more frequently. Against Ospreys, Leinster rested eleven of the starting XV which took on Saracens a week later, including the likes of Johnny Sexton and Tadhg Furlong. Mako Vunipola was the only first-choice Saracens player rested against Harlequins (Farrell and George Kruis were injured). This is in part because Leinster are comfortably leading their conference, but also because the clubs have less control over their players, ceding a degree to the national union.

Before this Champions Cup clash, Owen Farrell had played 1,084 minutes for Saracens this season. Johnny Sexton had played 434 for Leinster. 10 of England’s starting XV from the final round of the Six Nations played the next club match. Two of Ireland’s did.

To compound all of this, Wasps director of rugby Dai Young announced at the start of the season he has had an annual tradition of cutting his squad size forced upon him in order to cope with escalating player salaries and a salary cap fixed at £7 million for the next three seasons.

‘The salary cap is not moving and players want to get their market value … We have gone from 45 to 43 to 42 to 40 players. Our squad is getting smaller to keep the quality players we have got,’ Young told BBC 5 live.

This cannot be smart. If salary caps are going to work, then larger squad sizes also need to be enforced. Otherwise clubs will be forced to work with skeleton squads of their best players, all of whom play an excessive number of games.

Training risk
This discussion comes amidst the release of the Professional Rugby Injury Surveillance Project, jointly commissioned by the Rugby Football Union and Premiership Rugby, which reported injury data for the 2016-17 season (Eddie Jones first full season in charge) and showed that the ‘burden of injuries’ – taking into account both their frequency and their severity – more than doubled at England training compared to the previous campaign.

While Jones is understandably looking to make England the fittest team in the world in his quest for World Cup glory, this is certainly a touch concerning.

Sadly, Wasps flanker Sam Jones has recently been forced to retire on medical advice after failing to recover fully from an injury sustained at an England training camp – although that looks more like a freak incident.

However, 36% of all injuries last season were sustained during training sessions, whether club or country.

You add all this up and it is starting to look like we are approaching a crisis point for rugby union in England.

Will Greenwood told Sky Sports recently: ‘I genuinely think that the most important thing that Eddie Jones can do and, number one on his to-do list, is to get his British & Irish Lions players, the likes of Maro Itoje and Owen Farrell, to the beach this summer.’

I wholeheartedly concur. And alongside that, the number of games, size of playing squads and training intensity all need a stern examination. Otherwise we will be in a situation where being knocked out of competitions is the only way players get a week off.

By Henry Ker

17 thoughts on “Could Saracens’ defeat be a blessing in disguise?

    1. Was thinking the exact same thing. Where some teams have 1 or 2 marquee players, Wasps have at least 4.
      I appreciate it must be hard having to try and hold on to star players who want a pay rise, whilst being bound by a salary cap, but the league does make concessions for “home-grown” or academy players. Wasps have been able to attract some quality talent but at the expense of squad size. No one else to blame but themselves.

      1. I take the point about Wasps and a lot of ‘star players’ but not sure it is quite such a defining issue as maybe it was a couple of years ago. The salary cap allows two marquee signings to be excluded from it, and they are no longer paying the £750,000 to Kurtley Beale, so its not the cash itself.

        Out of the Wasps team which took on Leicester last weekend, I would say Le Roux and Gopperth were the only ‘parachuted-in’ marquee names. It included six players who started their careers with the club (Leicester had five), while the like of Guy Thompson, Thomas Young or Simon McIntyre were hardly big signings and have been there for 4 years or more.

        I imagine the bigger issue for Wasps has been trying to keep guys like Elliot Daly, Christian Wade and Joe Launchbury there – they will all have had huge raises to tie them to the club.

  1. 7,000,000 between 40 players works out at 175,000 per player.
    There is no way a prem player should average anything like that amount. The wages are absolutely out of control and are making the pro game unsustainable. Problem is that increases in salary cap dont lead to larger squads, but in higher wages, particularly for star attractions. Getting some kind of control on wages is going to be fundamental to the financial well being of the clubs.
    In terms of player welfare, its been obvious for a few years that our players play too much. There is insufficient rest, rotation seems to be a novelty at most clubs and players are routinely brought back too early from injury.
    The elite game should really look to have a much broader consensus around wages, squad size, rotation and the game time that players in all positions should realistically play.

    1. Completely agree with all of this. I believe Exeter were the only team not to operate at a loss last season – and while I don’t have an issue with rugby players earning large wages, if they are not sustainable, that is an issue. As you say, increasing salary caps by themselves don’t lead to larger squads, it needs additional rules to make the caps work.

  2. We have enough experience of the cap by now to know that increasing the cap just leads to higher wages and definitely not to larger squads or more sustainable clubs. Ironically Exeter the only club to make an operating profit also reputedly have the largest squad (60) in the league. Perhaps coupling the total cap with a cap on average wages of say £120,000, this would compel a club spending up to £7million cap to employ a squad of about 58.

  3. As a Sarries fan I have to agree with pretty much everything being said here.
    You have a squad with mainly home grown players, they all get selected for their country because they are coached well and play well, so you extend your squad, but you are never going to get players who are as good as those they are replacing without looking abroad and paying higher wages.
    If you are lucky enough to discover or, have players in your academy squad who are reaching the level required, you promote them, they play well, and then get selected by their country. (I’m mainly talking with examples like Lozowski and Isiekwe in mind).
    You can’t win either way. Whilst all clubs and fans want to see their players getting capped, it does make you wonder what you are meant to do.
    For clubs like Sarries it is hard to maintain and, with a Lions tour thrown in and 5 of your starting 15 are selected for that as well, it’s even harder to come away with anything at the end of the season.
    Do I think this early exit will benefit Sarries and England next season. I certainly hope so but, I think more changes need to be made at both club and international level to keep players fresh and fit.

    Sarries have signed Alex Lewington from irish for next season. He has only been involved with England Saxons and made just one appearance in 2016. How many games do you think he will play for Sarries before Eddie adds him to the England squad?

      1. It didn’t stop him selecting Solomona and, we all saw how his first cap went!
        Yes he scored a good try but, the two he gave away were atrocious defensive mistakes.
        Lewington has been scoring tries regularly for a team who have been stuck at the bottom of the table all season where the backs hardly get any ball.

    1. Agree with you there Dazza and think it is one of the reasons they brought in Calum Clark, as they knew he was really unlikely to get picked for England (been an age since his won cap and too old to be worth blooding again) – shame he got injured…

        1. Agree Jacob.
          I find it difficult to sympathise with a bloke who deliberately broke another professional player’s arm, and a hooker’s throwing arm no less, without any kind of provocation.

  4. Nope. Interesting how excuses come out when teams start losing. What about the last 2 yrs when Sarries & England (mostly), were winning? Or was it just the NZ tour that tipped the balance?

    1. Not an excuse – I am fully admitting key players are out of form, Leinster were definitely the better team at the weekend, as were Ireland against England – I was using the game as a springboard to discuss what I think is a very real issue in rugby, that of over-playing players and spiralling injury rates, which is a bigger issue in England than elsewhere for the reasons I mention above. And yes I think the Lions tour is one of the factors to have made the difference this season.
      If you want, just chop any reference to the Sarries/Leinster game out, the article is not really about that tbh, and I would still think the same even if Sarries had won.

      1. Absolutely Henry.
        The ABs are much better managed/cosetted.
        It is the volatile mix of private club owners in the Aviva Premiership wanting to get their moneys worth (far exceeding the 35 match a season cap) and the lethal combo of internationals plus this season’s Lions that have done for the English.
        Ireland were the better team…..yes (the repetition gets boring) but tiredness has been a sporting reality. Irrefutable !

        1. You must have recovered from 3 in a row. Thought you’d emigrated to watch how the ABs do things.

      2. The underlying concern for the clubs in particular, but also in turn for England, is that the teams are also in debt, running squads that are too big & so too expensive. Sarries ran up a £2m loss last season, are now out of the EC & their backers have pulled out. Not quite the role model for Euro that the boyo from the S Times mooted not so lang ago. Anyway & according to Mark Evans, the aforementioned also applies to all/most Prem clubs. Additionally, he opined they also play too many games, comps, hence more injuries (some may be down to Eddie ‘the flogger’ though?), which must concern, not only the clubs, but England too. The model is, IOW, unsustainable. However, it was only over the last 2 yrs that Sarries won the EC x2, so what’s really caused their exit this yr? Tiredness? Well, if it’s just that, then why didn’t this show up over the last 2 yrs? All teams have injuries, so perhaps better squad rotation management might help, but obviously less games will surely equate to less injuries. A real dilemma, as more players & more games to cover costs is actually running up the costs. Makes me tired just thinking about it. I don’t entirely buy into this ‘tiredness’ thing however as it didn’t seem to be an issue last yr.. did it? And currently the squads ARE big enough (some have 55!), leaving aside sustainability for the moment.

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