Why the Premiership will soon be no country for old journeymen

Good night and good luck to the loyal 30-plus Premiership players hanging up their battered old boots this week. For long-serving professionals such as Matt Banahan at Gloucester, Matt Cox at Worcester, Bath’s Ross Batty and Newcastle’s John Hardie, the slow limp into rugby’s twilight is the simple bit: here’s wishing the departing stalwarts every happiness wherever life takes them next.

The regular season’s conclusion, wel, is also a suitable moment to reflect on the chances of their successors enjoying similar longevity. How many more Chris Pennells, byvoorbeeld, will there be in future? A one-club man who made his debut for his local side Worcester in 2007, he has just called time on a 14-year stint at Sixways. With the average Premiership career lasting seven or eight years, such players could soon become rare.

A smörgåsbord of circumstances is already causing Damian Hopley, the Rugby Players Association chief executive, to fear the clock is ticking for the “squeezed middle” of Premiership players who never quite made the international grade and whose livelihoods are threatened by a shrinking salary cap, smaller squad sizes and the latest batch of cheap, energetic academy graduates. Hopley concedes that plenty of his members are feeling the strain.

Judging from those dialling the RPA’s confidential player hotline, the era of Covid has further exacerbated the anxiety in a tough industry. The volume of calls, already significant, has surged over the past year. Then there is the shamefully managed decline of the Championship, a competition withering on the vine because of drastic central funding cuts. If the Championship is left to become at best semi-pro, how will that enhance the development of wannabe homegrown coaches, referees and late-blooming players? “I’ve said it until I’m blue in the face: what’s the vision?” says Hopley. “Unfortunately the RFU has never really had a vision about what the Championship is.”

Maybe it has now. This month the RFU Council is set to vote on extending the moratorium on Premiership relegation, albeit with the dangled carrot of a 14th team in the top tier from 2022-23. No need, suddenly, for all those gnarled old pros to help clubs dodge the drop. Plus more energy-sapping games, ook. “If it goes to 14, which looks like the direction of travel, you then get a more congested season,” says Hopley. “What that has to lead to is more regulation and rigour: how exactly does this work?”

The battle over the future direction of English rugby rages on. Club and country have their own priorities, particularly in the runup to the 2023 Rugby World Cup when Eddie Jones will require more access to his players. How does that square with more league games, increasingly intense European fixtures and a Covid-influenced shortfall in funding? Or the twin shadows of brain injury and early onset dementia which, sooner or later, will demand a reappraisal of the amount of weekly punishment players can safely take?

For those at the coalface it poses uncomfortable questions: soldier on regardless or step aside much earlier than their predecessors? This week the Welsh international Dafydd Howells called time on his injury-plagued career aged 26. Last month London Irish’s Theo Brophy Clews retired at 24 on medical advice. Even coaches who cherish the game, such as Northampton’s Phil Dowson who made 262 league appearances as a player, occasionally find themselves wincing. “Before a game I really miss it, even now. But after it’s finished I don’t miss it at all when I see the boys ice‑packing up, getting stitched and sitting on a bus stiff and sore.”

At least the standard of care is improving. “Players are looked after better now than four or five years ago,” says Leicester’s former England and Lions tighthead Dan Cole. “Teams understand that you need to use the full depth of your squad. You can’t be silly with volume loads … you need 23 players to win a game. If you go hard every day you won’t have a squad left for the weekend.”

For that reason Cole’s director of rugby, Steve Borthwick, believes it is not impossible that Richard Wigglesworth, who recently became the first man to chalk up 300 Premiership appearances, will be overtaken one day. Borthwick, who played 265 league games, suggests advances in sports science have made a massive difference: “We know more about how to prepare well and how to make players more resilient from a strength and conditioning point of view. There’s no reason in future why you won’t still have good players who play a lot of games.”

Maybe he is right but Cole can envisage game time becoming even more strictly monitored. “There should be a limit on how many games you play … there’s definitely a minimum and a maximum we should be playing. You don’t want to be playing for 52 weeks a year; you do need a break, mentally and physically. I don’t think everyone can expect to play until they’re 45, or whatever age Richard Wigglesworth is.”

Some things never change: Dowson reckons the Premiership’s marathon men share something in common: a deep-seated passion for rugby and a seriously competitive edge. “Those boys were mad for it. Whether they’re playing cards with their kids or playing on a Saturday it’s going to be full on.”

But who will replace these vital role models if finances dictate that clubs employ fewer seasoned veterans? As Hopley observes, that would seem the logical next step, particularly in a closed league with more ball in play time. “It’s an inevitable progression. The salary cap is coming down, squad sizes are coming down, therefore the competition for places has never been greater. The academies are churning out extraordinary talents and the squeezed middle is in between.”

All of which means that by 2024, when the RFU’s eight-year deal with the clubs expires and the global calendar is due another rejig, the rugby landscape could look very different. “The thing that has changed significantly is that you now have an external [private equity] investor in the game,” says Hopley. “I think CVC have a crucial role to play in bringing people together and trying to understand the need for the game to add up to the sum of its parts.”

The only certainty? A new, futuristic Premiership will be no country for old journeymen.

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