Fixture crush has players talking of strike action – World Rugby must step up

Paul Rees
Northampton’s Christian Day, the chairman of the Rugby Players’ Association, said: ‘Up until now a strike hasn’t happened and let’s hope it never has to’ Photograph: Clive Mason/Getty Images

Players’ voices must be heard

The last time players in England went on strike it was in a dispute over pay. It was in November 2000 and the national squad baulked at a pay offer from the Rugby Football Union they felt was weighted too heavily towards win bonuses at the expense of match fees.

The word strike has been mentioned again this week. This time the issue is conditions rather than pay with players concerned at the implications of Premiership Rugby’s decision to have the domestic season running from the beginning of September until the end of June from 2019-20 with internationals then going on tour.

The word was used by the Northampton second row Christian Day, the chairman of the Rugby Players’ Association. He was speaking in a personal, rather than an official, capacity when he said players had to be given cast-iron assurances about rest periods. “Up until now a strike hasn’t happened and let’s hope it never has to. It is not a particularly British thing to do.”

There also murmurs of strike action in Australia where the five Super Rugby franchises may be reduced to four. Western Force, based in Perth, have been reported to be the side that will be cut, prompting an official denial that was wrapped in a statement which admitted a review was being undertaken.

The Rugby Union Players’ Association in Australia (RUPA) will consider whether to call for a strike if one of the teams is cut, reducing the player base by 20%. “The professional game evolved out of player militancy and it might well be that is the only action which best looks after the interests of the game in Australia because there is no indication that the Australian Rugby Union is performing this task,” Greg Harris, who has held positions with RUPA, Western Force and the Waratahs told the Sydney Morning Herald.

Players have tended to be on the periphery when major decisions have been made in the professional era, although the international players’ association was involved in the talks over the calendar in the two hemispheres after the 2019 World Cup. Those at the top end have done well: back in 2000, the England players were unhappy at a deal worth £60,000 a year to each of them; today, a match fee is £22,000 with bonuses for tournament successes.

Salary cap increases tend to be soaked up by wage inflation: the more players get paid, the more that is asked of them. But there comes a point when demands threaten earning capacity. An injury means no Test match fee, and while Premiership Rugby makes assurances that expanding the season by a month will place no extra demands on players who will still have a 32-game limit each year and guaranteed rest periods, but what about training sessions?

It is a decision that should not be made by Premiership Rugby alone but made in consultation with the players’ association and the Rugby Football Union. The clubs see an opportunity to reduce the number of league matches played during the November international period and the Six Nations, one reason why the want the latter to be played over five consecutive weeks.

Owners see football as the ideal model. The top divisions in Europe go into hibernation when international matches are played. There is no overlap, no big league matches when both teams are weakened because players are away with the countries, but the proposed change as it stands means that a player who is not in the England squad could start the campaign at the beginning of September, play well enough to get a call-up and find that the first chance he gets for a rest is at the end of July.

Where is the duty of care? The drawn-out talks over the calendar, which achieved little of substance other than to allow the Super Rugby tournament to be played in one block without a pause for the summer tours to the southern hemisphere, highlighted a weakness in the running of the game. World Rugby, the International Rugby Board as was, has changed significantly in the 21+ years of professionalism: it is more democratic and more representative of the sport as a whole, but the real power still lies with the tier one nations, the countries with the highest turnovers.

They still take the major decisions, not World Rugby’s executive, and while there are times when they split between the hemispheres, not least over the calendar, the current system suits them. Which is why it is not working. It should not be up to Premiership decree when its season starts and finishes: World Rugby should be able to lay down a maximum nine-month domestic season for all its member unions; only the start date should be discretionary.

All World Rugby’s executive can do is advise and then wait for the politics to play out. If no one wants to see World Rugby become the bloated, complacent and septic organisation that Fifa turned into before its edifice crumbled, there needs to be more authority at the centre and more voices needed to be heard, not least those of the players whose associations should be trade unions.

And the clubs in England and France. Bernard Laporte’s attempt to get the leading players in his country contracted centrally to the French Rugby Federation is not the way forward there any more than it would be in England, not least because it would carry the risk of the Top 14 and the Premiership turning into versions of cricket’s county championship which is now largely shorn of the leading players and in danger of becoming moribund.

Direction has to come from the top. The years it took to sort out the calendar, which ultimately did not amount to anything substantial, and the time it is taking to address the residential qualification period for international players show how the game is stuck in the middle, pushing players to consider the ultimate sanction.

This is an extract taken from the Breakdown, the Guardian’s weekly rugby union email. To subscribe, just visit this page and follow the instructions.

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