When World Rugby announced its reforms for the global season back in March, it understandably provoked a mixed reaction.
With the June internationals set to be played in July from 2020 onwards, it creates a dead month at the end of the Premiership and PRO14 seasons, which currently culminate in May.
International players cannot begin their offseasons at the conclusion of the domestic season and face a month of limbo, before going on tour with their national teams and then returning home just a month before the new Premiership and PRO14 seasons would begin.
Premier Rugby Limited (PRL) Chief Executive Mark McCafferty responded to these alterations by proposing several changes to the structure of the Premiership season, most notable of which was to extend the season into June, whilst also retaining the September start date. As a result, this would mean less overlap between the Premiership season and the international windows.
For non-international players, it would reduce what is currently a three-month offseason to a two-month one. Players are already brought back into preseason training five weeks – the minimum required downtime by Premiership contracts – after the previous season finishes and reducing the time between seasons will only see them return to a more intense and attritional training regime.
As for the previously mentioned internationals, their offseason would amount to a grand total of a month away from the game before the new season started. Based on the current five-week offseason clause in players’ contracts, they would only begin their preseason training once the regular season had begun.
Several high-profile players have come out publicly in opposition to this, including England and British and Irish Lion loosehead Joe Marler and Northampton Saints lock and Rugby Players’ Association (RPA) chairman Christian Day. They are not alone, either, with Tom Youngs, Mike Brown and Billy Vunipola all also speaking out and Vunipola even going a step further, criticising the length of the current season.
The England N8 has suggested cutting the Premiership season to 11 games
We at RugbyPass decided to take an objective approach and poll players and coaches around the competition on their feelings towards the prospect of an extended season, as well as the threat of strike action should the Premiership season be extended into June.
We asked 48 players and coaches from 12 of the 14 PRL member clubs, including a range of players from recent school graduates to seasoned international stars, the following two questions:
1) Would you support an extended Premiership season?
2) a. As a player, would you participate in an RPA-led strike if the season were to be extended?
2) b. As a coach, would you support your players participating in an RPA-led strike if the season were to be extended?
To say the results were emphatic would be an understatement.
In answer to the first question, 100% (48) of responders said that they would NOT support an extended season. Two responders did qualify their answers by saying that whilst they would still not support the extension, they would be content with it if there were a four-week winter break incorporated into the season.
As for the second question, it brought a bit more diversity in its answers.
There was strong support for a strike, with 56% (27) stating that they would participate in or support their players participating in RPA-led action. A further 12.5% (6) stated they would strike, but only with RPA data on the detrimental effects of a shorter offseason, club support and/or senior figures at their respective club, such as team and club captains, leading the way.
In total, 19% (9) of players polled said they wouldn’t strike if the season were to be extended and 12.5% (6) were either uncomfortable talking about the prospect of striking or did not know how they would react until they were in the situation.
Whilst it is important to keep the poll as objective as possible, there are a few bits of anecdotal evidence worth considering when dealing with these results.
Firstly, two players who said they would participate in strike action also said that they would consider going a step further and quitting if the season were to be extended.
Secondly, of the nine who responded saying they wouldn’t strike, many were players in their first, second or third years out of school and still on academy contracts. For them, playing time, financial security and earning second contracts are understandable concerns.
Lastly, there was a general contentment among the responses with the current length of the season. Vunipola may have recently called upon the Premiership to cut its season in half, but the majority of non-international players polled enjoyed the current season structure, as it provides opportunities to fringe and young players to stake their claims for playing time.
The ball is now in the PRL’s court.
Players, coaches, fans and the media have all criticised the proposals for an extended season and the threat of strike action is there to be seen.
In response to proposed changes to the Premiership season structure.
Follow link to read in full: https://t.co/ShDjhkHpYc
— The RPA (@theRPA) May 22, 2017
Pushing back the start date of the season to October may not appeal to PRL chiefs keen to grow the brand of the competition – something which is positively boosted by the firmer grounds and attacking rugby on display in September – but it is infinitely preferable to swathes of players around the league downing tools and initiating an NBA-like lockout.
Player welfare is not a term to be bandied about for PR purposes, it is the chief concern in any proposal to extend the season and it is hard to see how reducing the offseason and increasing the amount of games international players can play, has any beneficial impact in this regard.
Grab your popcorn, the next two years could be very interesting.