Rugby: Schedule raises fears for player welfare

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 games.

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 currently play."

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 late February.

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

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