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.
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.
— Saracens Rugby Club (@Saracens) March 26, 2018
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.
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