Premiership Rugby chiefs causing panic by refusing to come clean over plans

It’s a mad rugby world out there and things just got a little crazier last week when some strident voices amongst the Premiership’s playing fraternity vented their disapproval over Premiership plans to increase the length of the season, threatening strike action in the process.

At the root of the players’ dissatisfaction, whose public faces include Northampton lock Christian Day, Saracens No.8 Billy Vunipola and Harlequins prop Joe Marler, are vague proposals by Premiership Rugby to amend their season structure in line with World Rugby from 2019.

Saracens No.8 Billy Vunipola carrying the ball against Exeter Chiefs. PICTURE: PATRICK KHACHFE / JMP

Instead of running from September to May as now, Premiership Rugby believe that by moving the climax of their campaign to June, with outgoing tours to New Zealand, South Africa and Australia in July, they can spread the league programme to avoid clashing with internationals.

It has always been a bugbear of clubs and supporters that so many league games are scheduled on the same weekends as autumn internationals or Six Nations Test matches, so reducing the number of overlaps, where effectively star players are double-booked, appears to make sense.

However, what Premiership Rugby have not said, nor come anywhere near close to clarifying, is what they intend to do with all those newly created ‘free’ weekends when the vast majority of club squad members will be twiddling their thumbs whilst their Test colleagues slug it out.

There’s been talk of extending the Anglo-Welsh Cup to include a number of South African teams, but as ever with Premiership Rugby, whose recent record in relation to transparency is woeful, no detail has been forthcoming, either to players, members of the media or paying supporters.

Quite frankly, the Anglo-Welsh Cup is dying on its feet so why anybody feels the injection of three or four half-interested South Africa sides will change that is open to serious scrutiny.

You suspect there’ll be cash incentives involved somewhere, but of course no-one will ever say.

Premiership Rugby’s silence on the matter is as deeply frustrating as it is unnecessary, for by steadfastly refusing to clarify their proposals they are simply allowing rumour and scare-mongering to run rampant – hence last week’s pronouncements from players over strike action.

Striking about what? We don’t actually know yet, but panic tends to spread and all Premiership Rugby seem to be doing is alienating a bunch of their most influential players.

So a request to the suits at HQ: please provide some info and tell us where professional rugby is heading?

Sharples not keen on a mid-season break

Gloucester’s Charlie Sharples. Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

Speaking to long-serving Gloucester wing Charlie Sharples last week, the Kingsholm crowd favourite is in no doubt where his loyalties would lie were a longer season to be proposed.

He told me: “It’s a hot topic around Gloucester at the minute and what’s being proposed is worrying for players from a welfare point of view.

“I know myself that in the last ten years the game has certainly changed; the demands have increased, not just on the field but off it, and as the salary cap goes up the league is getting more competitive.

Breaks within a season never feel like breaks – it’s never long enough and you can’t switch off

“It’s a testing environment mentally and physically now, so to prolong that, which is what they’re proposing, I can’t see any benefits to a player.

“They can talk about having midseason breaks but it’s never quite the same once you’re in a season.”

As Sharples says, mid-season breaks have been mooted, but he is dead-set against.

He added: “Over the last few seasons I’ve been very well managed and have had rest during Anglo-Welsh Cup weeks.

“But even if I get a complete week off during the season, it never feels like you’re really off because you know in the back of your mind that in seven days you’ll be getting battered again at Welford Road or Allianz Park.

“It’s just not a proper break like the one you get at the end of the season, where you know for sure that you can put your boots away for five weeks.

“It’s totally different and whilst on paper it’s easy to say we’ll get breaks in November, February or whenever, circumstances can change and you might easily get pressed back into service.

“Breaks within a season never feel like breaks – it’s never long enough and you can’t switch off – so whilst we’ll have to wait to see how this debate evolves, hopefully it will get squashed by the RPA before anything comes to fruition.”

My gut instinct is to side with the players, but until Premiership Rugby provide clarity it is hard to be objective. It’s time for that transparency.

This article first appeared in the Independent. To get the latest articles when they appear, buy the print edition every Sunday or subscribe to our online edition HERE.