As the All Blacks prepare to bring the curtain down on a
marathon season that has seen some individuals play more than
30 games in 40 weeks, noises increase about the need for change
to the season structure.
The brave new format of 2012 that saw an extended Super Rugby
competition take a three-week break for the June test window
has not been endorsed by the senior All Blacks.
The New Zealand Rugby Players' Association is closely
monitoring the situation and quietly working out strategies
to either push for change in the structure or mechanisms by
which workloads can be better managed.
This season, particularly the last quarter of Super Rugby,
was excessively demanding of the players because it forced
them into an almost 10-week block of intense back-to-back
The overall workload during the season is not so much the
issue for the senior All Blacks - most say they can handle
being on duty in mid-February and signing off in late
November. The bigger problem is the volume of intense games
played in a condensed period. That's when mental and physical
fatigue becomes serious concerns.
"I think now, the Super Rugby calendar and All Black calendar
combined, I wouldn't want to be playing too many more games,"
says Conrad Smith.
"I have played 26 games this year and I think the right
number would be a little less than that. It is a long year
but that is just a challenge for all players and coaches.
"Playing every game of Super Rugby didn't help. All players
struggle through the year - I don't think you see a player
that plays his best all the way through the 10 months that we
The impact of the long season was felt in Cardiff last week
when the All Blacks felt they ran out of gas in the final 10
minutes. Maybe that wasn't surprising as there were a number
of All Blacks who were playing their 28th or 29th game since
Players such as Owen Franks, Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick,
Liam Messam, Kieran Read and Israel Dagg have played almost
every week since the season began - only managing time off in
scheduled bye weeks and the respective one-week gaps between
each of the four rounds in the Rugby Championship.
Ideally, the senior players would like to finish Super Rugby
before embarking on All Black duty much like they have done
in the past. The killer for them this year was having to play
three tests and then return immediately to the business end
of Super Rugby and then the playoffs.
The problem is Sanzar has locked into a five-year broadcast
deal under the current structure. It would require
considerable reorganisation and potentially lead to a cut in
Sanzar income if the current agreement was amended before the
expiry of the existing broadcast deal.
But at the same time there are genuine concerns that without
a more forgiving season structure there will be a bigger
price to pay in damaging the welfare of the player.
"I think player welfare is the biggest issue we have in the
game globally. It is a huge concern for the game," said All
Black coach Steve Hansen. "Your top players are the guys who
are getting thrashed both internationally and at club level.
"What we will probably see more of is those people taking
sabbaticals unless the IRB show some leadership in this area
and sort out a global season."
- by Gregor Paul in London