Are international players being pushed to their limits?

Joe Marler

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?

14 thoughts on “Are international players being pushed to their limits?

  1. I don’t think that it is a secret that international players are being flogged to death in some countries with France and England likely the two biggest culprits.
    I am in favour of World Rugby imposing a limit on matches played throughout a season for players on welfare grounds. Possibly a club and international limit, although how the Lions would fit into this I’m not quite sure?
    This might affect players earnings but it does seem, from various comments made that at least some players are in favour of this and possibly many.

  2. Well, maybe more will follow Marler, although he may not be as suited to International rugby demands as some. I recall that also Marler pulled out of a previous England tour.

    However, with a World League seemingly a likelihood in future, tours will end & this may reduce international demands. Or it may not, as the new WL will be made up of 12 teams from the hemispheres & if they all play each other, home & away, it will be pretty demanding.

    Trouble is that Gosper has stated that market forces dictate, so the northern drift to club teams from the richer nations will continue. These teams need success, so they ‘buy’ it, even though they seemingly run at a loss. The more fixtures played demand bigger squads to cover more injuries. This situation in turn demands bigger wage bills, so, along with its suppressing home grown players, the model is unsustainable.

    Moreover & more to the point,. it all demands more games being played to put more bums on seats to generate more dosh. This, of course, puts a bigger burden on the players, hence, along with internationals on top of all this, the ?; ‘Are International Players Being Pushed To Their Limit’, is really a rhetorical one. Of course they are.

    The solution? Over to the other Billy (Beaumont), Gosper, Pichot etc to come up with an answer to reduce player overload. Maybe the WL IS their answer, but I can’t see it as one.

    1. A world league, my god, what an horrendous prospect.
      Re the question, I have to agree with a lot of what Don p says. I’m going to reiterate something I said in a post on a different topic and posit that going full time pro is the root of all of this. I know, horse, stable door, etc but i just wonder what it would be like to turn the clock back and see if the same problems arose.

  3. I wonder how player burn out/longevity will effect my plan to play Elliot Daly in all back three posistions and outside centre for England, with Farrell playing at 10 & 12 simultaneously.

  4. In a moment of seriousness, having heard my old man and his generation talk about it for yonks, does anyone think going back to injury only substitutions being a potential solution? Would have a huge implication on the game, but I can’t help feeling the size and speed of the professional game is the biggest reason for this increase in injuries over the years. If you want to play a 24 stone Polynesian monster tighthead that’s fine, but he is on to play for 80 minutes, it’s going to surely effect the size and style of game and player rotation. Can teams really batter each other at the same level for a full game? Discuss

    1. How do you prove an injury, though? Remember the furore over the French ‘HIAs’ in the France-Ireland match, for example?
      What you’ll get if you enforce that rule specifically is football-esque pantomime for tactical substitutions. Point definitely taken, but it’s unenforceable. And it could take a pasting from those advocating player welfare too, as it seems against it (asking players to play through minor injuries that could have serious repercussions down the line, etc, as it isn’t big enough to warrant a substitution. (Where do you draw the line on injury?)).
      Point being, this area is far from perfect, but I suspect any direct laws shining harsher light on it is only going to create more problems… HIA is still experiencing enough teething problems as it is.

    2. Conversely, what about forced subs at a given interval (Half time?), increase the squad size to 30 and force a change at the half for say, 7-10 players? reduces the number of mins played for all while giving experience and exposure to a greater number of players. With this number of subs you could really change strategy based on the situation, a true game of 2 halves?

      1. I doubt whether any coaches would go for this. It would eff up their control & application of strategy no end!

        1. my thought’s exactly. Your half back pairing are running the opposition ragged and then come half time it’s “sorry lads , under the new ruling I’ve got to rep you!”
          The IRB are so two faced. They are all for more games to grow the sport internationally but realise that it’s currently at odds with the physical and mental demands on the players. Hence the farce over the shoulder high tackle and HIA. It’s capitalism versus sport essentially and I fear there will only be one winner and the game will alter beyond all recognition.

          1. Agree. I wonder what Gosper actually actively contributes to the betterment of the world game at times I know rugby is a sport, entertainment & a business, but this order seems to get out of sync judged by some of his utterances & the current goings on in the sport. I know there’s such a thing as ‘restraint it trade’, but I’m unclear on it’s application in rugby/sport. Surely there has to be a salary & ‘overseas’ player numbers cap for teams in the game (is there?) in the interests of fairness? Likewise, players could only be replaced previously due to injury (via a pitch side doc?), or not at all going back before then, but now 1/2 a team can be thrown on at will. How does this benefit the game overall? Similarly, what’s he doing in the interests of player welfare? Not promoting less game time, that’s for sure. Anyway, I wonder what motivated Gosper to have taken up his job of head honcho in the 1st place. Profile & power, money or the betterment of the sport? The reverse of this order ought to be his motivation, but I wonder whether his will to do this is high on his agenda somehow.

            1. Glad I got that off my chest, even if I went mite beyond the remit of the above article’s headline. I can go & grab a bite now!

  5. Have a chip butty , you’ve earned it!
    On a serious note, i don’t know much about Gosper bu we all know the maxim about power corrupting…………….. I hope I’m wrong but the IRB seem to be modelling themselves on FIFA somewhat and as a fan of wendy ball and rugby I can categorically say that is a BAD thing.

    1. Made do with some Holy Ghost (toast). Got off piste a bit with game instead of just player welfare, not to mention my nosebag. However, player & game welfare are fundamentally important currently & in the long term. There seems to be little grasp (Pichot apart?) let alone appropriate action from WR in respect of player & game welfare though. Concerning.

  6. Just remembered why I logged on! Launchers is out of the AI’s which connects nicely with the topic in hand. My replacement would be Ed Slater as he seems to offer similar qualities to JL.

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