Find out what Test stars think about workload, concussion, money, agents and international rugby
What the players think about rugby’s biggest issues: TEST RUGBY
There was controversy at the start of November because of the number of Tests played outside the international window and the resulting high-profile absences of players not released by their clubs. So it’s interesting that more than half of players think that no Tests should be played outside the official window.
Sam Warburton would like to see fewer Tests, but realises there needs to be a solution to the financial shortfall unions would incur by cutting matches. “I’d like to see a ruling that there’s no more than ten Internationals a season,” he said. “Players’ salaries are going up and up and up, but bodies can’t cope with the demands of sustaining those salaries.”
Test starters are viewed as the group at most risk of injury, 55% citing them, followed by fringe internationals (30%).
As for eligibility – a topical issue now players are able to switch allegiance via the Olympic sevens route – 45% believe players should be allowed to represent only one country at international level.
Yet 39% believe a player should be able to represent a different country if they have a passport for that country and have had a three-year stand-down period since they last played for the other country. The remaining 16% think it’s okay to switch providing the player is switching to a lower-tier country. Clearly players are divided over that issue.
However, the most significant – and shocking – finding in the survey is that 23% of players have felt pressured not to play for their countries by their clubs. Of those players, 39% admit to succumbing to that pressure and not representing their countries.
That means nearly one in ten (9%) players, predominantly from Tier Two nations, have been compelled to choose club over country. That number should be zero; no one should feel they have to turn down international honours because of pressure from their club.
“The international game drives rugby,” says Omar Hassanein. “Therefore it is imperative that players, no matter where they are in the world, have every opportunity to put on the national jersey.
“For years, we knew anecdotally that players were pressured to stay at their clubs instead of representing their nation. We know now that many of our members have felt pressured not to play for their country and many have fallen victim to this pressure. For the good of the game, this cannot continue.”
What the players think about rugby’s biggest issues: MONEY
The five-figure sum England players receive for playing a Test is widely reported while Pacific Islanders might get a few hundred pounds a week when in international camp. So while 62% of players said their income significantly or slightly increases by playing Test rugby, 20% said their pay decreases by playing for their national team.
Drilling down into the results determines, unsurprisingly, that nearly all those players who lose money representing their country are from Tier Two nations. Clubs have been known to dock wages, reduce contract offers or introduce clauses around game time while players may have to pay their own expenses, so if they head off on Test duty their pay packet suffers. Tied into this is the fact so many Tier Two players have felt pressured by their clubs not to pursue international honours.
Former Tonga player Hale T-Pole told Rugby World earlier this year: “We don’t want clubs to hold players back from the World Cup. We’re already hearing of some players being told, ‘We’ll give you an extra £20,000 in your contract but you have to stay here’.”
Until there is a better distribution of wealth in the international game, such as a share of ticket sales for Tier Two nations when they play at Tier One venues, it is unlikely this will change. So some players will face the tough choice of choosing whether to represent their country on the biggest stage or make more money for their family and their future by playing for their clubs.
Related: Opportunities and obstacles in Pacific Islands rugby
Joe Marler also brings up an interesting point about how the amount of money in the game is affecting younger players, with big offers on the table early on in their careers.
“There’s a lot of money in the game and there are a lot of younger guys expecting everything,” says the Quins front-rower. “Some want everything now and if they don’t get it they’ll go somewhere else because someone else will pay them. Sometimes kids come out of school thinking they are the finished article there and then.
“I don’t want to stop people being themselves, but there needs to be a little less expectation and entitlement. It will happen if you graft, work hard and keep going for it.”
A lot of the talking points from this survey intertwine but what is most important is that the game’s governing bodies take on board what the players have to say. Without the players, there would be no game and it is absolutely critical that their voice is heard in any discussions and decisions surrounding the future of the sport. And the onus is on the players as well as the power-brokers to ensure this happens.
While Joe Marler is not putting himself forward for a role with the RPA or similar, he says players have to speak up while decisions are being made, rather than criticise them when they’re announced.
“It’s easy for players like myself, Billy Vunipola and Ben Youngs to come out and say we’ll go on strike if we don’t get what we want, but we’ve done that without knowing the crux of it,” he says. “It’s easier to pick holes in something than come up with ideas and solutions.
“We maybe don’t appreciate that we have a huge influence on the game as a whole, a responsibility to the game not just to be the best players we can be but to actively have a voice to help out guys coming through.
“It’s hard because I know when I was an England player, the RPA asked our opinion and my reaction was, ‘Okay, I’m concentrating on playing this weekend’. We have to get on board quicker. We can’t wait until a decision is made and say we’re not happy with it because it’s too late; we need to be involved and have an influence while it’s happening.”
It seems fitting to give the final word to International Rugby Players chief executive Omar Hassanein: “This survey, the largest gathering of data from elite players in all major nations, shows the importance our players put on having a strong voice in the game.
“We will be taking this information and working with World Rugby and other authorities to ensure we make progress on the priority issues for our players.”
This article originally appeared in Rugby World’s January 2019 issue.
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