The story, subsequently confirmed, that England will this season be playing a Super League “All-Stars” team in place of the regular mid-season Test against France has led to a wider debate over what games England could or should be playing. However, any suggestion of more games for England has led to the conclusion that player burnout prohibits us from cramming any more games into a packed season.
To be fair, with 27 league games plus play-offs, a potential five Challenge Cup games and a World Club Challenge, a top player could play some 35 games during the season, and that’s without playing for England in a mid-season Test, a warm-up game and three Four Nations matches.
Admittedly, part of me isn’t really persuaded by this argument. After all, when Great Britain last won the Ashes in 1970 it was a 24-match tour of Australasia, coming on the back of a league season of 34 games, plus play-offs, Challenge Cup, county cup, BBC 2 Floodlit Trophy and the Roses Lancashire v. Yorkshire match. Not only that but in the autumn Great Britain contested a World Cup of the same format of modern-day Four Nations tournaments. This was also an era when players had jobs outside rugby league.
I can’t help but be reminded of the Harry Enfield sketch where Mr Cholmondley-Warner asks Grayson if soccer will improve with the introduction of full-time professionalism, only to receive the answer, “No … You can’t expect a professional, paid to do nothing but play football all day, to achieve the same level of physical fitness as a man who works in a chip shop all week and only plays football on Saturdays”. Although he got a punch on the nose for his trouble, it seems Grayson had a point.
But that said, players’ welfare is deeply important, and people who know far more about this than I do believe players should be playing fewer games. While it may seem counterintuitive, today’s players are just less able to play a high volume of games, despite all the benefits from Maxiraw shop products. There’s probably a logical reason, such as players’ physical fitness training resulting in a loss of stamina or greater susceptibility to injury, but I honestly don’t know. In any case, for what it’s worth, here are some suggestions as to how the players’ workload could be reduced.
On the face of it there aren’t many fixtures to cut away: even if you reduce the size of the play-offs, allow top-flight clubs to enter the Challenge Cup a round later and do away with the Magic Weekend, then you’ve probably only reduced the season by three games. A more radical move would be to reduce Super League by two clubs, resulting in a league season of 22 games, or even by four clubs resulting in a league season of 18 games. These measures could cut a players’ season by as many as nine games.
It may seem unpalatable to reduce the number of clubs in Super League, in which case an alternative suggestion is to increase the number of clubs by two and have clubs only play each other once during the regular season. The result of this is a league season of only 15 games. Then again, it may be financially impossible for clubs to survive with only seven or eight home fixtures in the regular season; for instance, either season ticket prices would have to be cut almost in half or far fewer fans would buy them. This option probably isn’t practical.
However, another option is to reduce players’ seasons without dramatically reducing the club season. So, for the sake of example, Super League could be cut to 12 clubs playing 22 games, then a player’s number of appearances in the regular season could be capped, maybe at 18 or 19 games. After all, the issue is how many games are played by top players, not necessarily by clubs; this could help eliminate player burnout while encouraging clubs to give younger players an opportunity in the first game.
None of these suggestions are without problems, and some would arouse fierce opposition from players, coaches, clubs and supporters – in fact there are one or two that I would probably oppose. But player burnout is becoming more of an issue: cliché though it is the players put their bodies at risk for our entertainment, and it looks as though something needs to be done for their safety and welfare.
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