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Lions tour not alone in punishing tired players in flawed rugby season

Tournament organisers have struggled to deliver a coherent-looking season that comes close to suiting all parties.
Jun 5th 2017, 8:00 AM 9,505 5

IN THE WAKE of watching his team — a combined selection of the best players available to England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland — stutter to an uninspired narrow win with all the hallmarks of fatigue, Warren Gatland bemoaned the timing of the fixture.

He would have liked a full week between wheels down in New Zealand and playing a first game against a team of mostly amateur players. The problem is, Gatland didn’t throw out a source for where that time would come from – a whole other can of worms.

Fewer tour matches could well impact the sponsorship of the Lions team under his wing. A later start would mean shorter recovery time before a new season for players, or just a smaller window to prepare for the earliest big games in that campaign and they couldn’t possibly do without the pomp and circumstance of the Lions’ farewell dinner in London last Sunday.

No, Gatland was bemoaning that those ‘powers that be’ hadn’t quite figured out how the Lions, or any traditional aspect, fits in to the precariously balanced  modern rugby season.

Tommy Seymour and Alun Wyn Jones Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

A huge number of people who watch rugby in both professional and leisurely basis are still trying to get their heads around rugby’s ever-increasing physicality and prevailing injuries that occupy MRI machines, surgeons and bring about early finales to careers.

All the while, organisers of the tournaments we turn on in our droves are trying to stuff in and churn out more of the same product. Last week, the word on the Beeb was the Cheetahs had been offered a spot in the Pro12. The same competition have long been making noises about branching out to the US. Super Rugby now plays fixtures in eight countries. The Premiership meanwhile, have expressed a wish to condense the Six Nations to the bear minimum five weeks so that they can further bulk up the league.

More games. More travel. Bigger bodies. Longer seasons. Less recovery time.

It easily lends itself to the argument that the Lions tour is an archaic entity with no place in the modern game. Why bother pile more attrition on the already insurmountable 11 and 12-month seasons?

Ian McGeechan is heavily rooted in the Lions machine and points instinctively to both the pride players take in the jersey and how delighted the corporate wing  of the tour are when the sales of those €70-80 pieces of apparel come in. However, the former player and coach is genuine in his views and makes the important point that rugby, particularly in the northern hemisphere, is some way off striking harmony between the top tier and the weekly league offerings.

“There is no doubt the game is getting more and more physical so you have to look after the players,” McGeechan said in Dublin last week after launching a product, a man with an almost clean injury history who has also succumbed.

“There has to be a balance between the domestic season and the international season, which I don’t think is 100% right at the moment. Premiership Rugby are talking about adding another month to their season. I think you have got to keep everything in perspective in a rugby context.

Sir Ian McGeechan presents Jonathan Sexton with his jersey Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“Whilst the Lions jersey is the biggest jersey a player thinks he can wear, then it should be important. And you should have enough things in place at the right time to make it work. I think still to be able to adjust the season so there is another couple of weeks preparation and an extra at the end that helps to recovery time should not prove too difficult.”

Oh, but it is a siege trying to coax the stakeholders of European rugby around. Just ask the old Heineken Cup.

McGeechan draws the comparison with the World Cup, when seasons are built around the sport’s biggest tournament, as an example of how unions can set a few weeks aside for their players to ramp up and prepare.

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The problem with the Lions’ timing then, is that it comes at the end of the season, when clubs either have their most important match of the season or no games at all.

“Obviously you should plan the season where the Lions is part of it. You shouldn’t have to have a discussion every year about whether the Lions (is sustainable).

Taulupe Faletau tackled by Jack Stratton Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“The Lions has got bigger. With the All Black jersey the Lions jersey is the biggest jersey in the world so it has some importance. No other team takes 30,000 (fans) 12,000 miles around the world. So there is something there worth keeping I think. If nobody had any interest in it, then fine, it would work it’s way out of the system. But it is the number one supporter team and it is the number one player team.

“It just needs some sensible thinking on what the Lions season looks like domestically and internationally to make it work and then, yes, you look after the players because the game now is so demanding physically.

“What doesn’t work at the moment is the soft planning before and recovery after. Look all that needs to happen is a good overview of what a Lions season should look like.”

It must be pointed out, and McGeechan does, that the four-nation tour is not the only energy-sapping trip tacked on to the end of northern hemisphere seasons.

If players weren’t dusting themselves down from Pro12 and Premiership finals to go and play for the Lions they would be off on tour with their country. National tours however, don’t play 10 matches in six weeks and don’t expect, almost nonchalantly, that the injury toll will settle into double figures.

“Unfortunately now with the way the game has gone professionally, that is just the general figure that is there. You have to manage anyway. You watch the players go out every week now with the physicality and size and fitness the impacts in the game, it is very different to 10, 20 years ago.

“And that is why I think it is a wider discussion about the whole programme. It’s not about the Lions. It’s about what an international and domestic year should look like. And in the professional game, the administrators are still catching up with that.”

Players can only hope to limit the damage until they do.

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Sean Farrell


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