Former All Blacks captain Sean Fitzpatrick knows English rugby well, having settled in London following the conclusion of his playing career.
So, when Fitzpatrick suggests that England are unlikely to win the Rugby World Cup again while the current club system is in place, he cannot be accused of being ill-informed.
Of the 11 players listed as unavailable to England head coach Eddie Jones this November on the press release that heralded his latest squad last Thursday, 10 are missing due to injury.
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Nick Isiekwe, Billy Vunipola and his brother Mako, moreover, were injured in the same Heineken Champions Cup match and Fitzpatrick inferred that the workload international players are forced to shoulder in England is too great.
“I think England’s going to struggle to win the World Cup with the current structure of club and country,” he told RugbyPass on the sidelines of the Laureus Sport for Good Summit in Paris.
“The fatigue on the players is just… look at the injuries. A lot of that has to do with the number of games they’re playing, the intensity they’re having to work at.
“So (England will struggle) until that changes or there’s a better system in place.”
Unsurprisingly, given his ties to Harlequins, Fitzpatrick is not in favour of tinkering too much with the Premiership.
“It’s difficult,” he said. “The clubs pay the players, so until the RFU (Rugby Football Union) maybe invest more money in the clubs (it won’t change).
“But what we need to be careful of is that it’s not totally focused on international rugby, because the Premiership is good fun, it’s a good competition. But ultimately it’s effecting the performance of England.”
Under current RFU guidelines, which are due to be revised from next season, Premiership players are limited to 32 lots of 80 minutes per campaign, a figure few reach.
That limit is substantially higher than those which operate in New Zealand and Ireland, where central contracts mean the unions have a much greater say in how many – and which – games international players are involved in.
In Ireland, Leinster are poster boys of the potential benefits of such a system having built a squad of largely homegrown players that is capable of coping with the demands of PRO14, Champions Cup and Test rugby.
“It’s no surprise that the best two teams in the world are both centrally contracted. At the moment that’s telling you something, isn’t it?” Fitzpatrick said.
“I’ve thought for a while Joe (Schmidt, Ireland head coach) has done a great job there, and what he’s done also is create a lot of depth.
When England were in the midst of an 18-match unbeaten run, the November 10 visit of the All Blacks to Twickenham had been touted as a significant indicator for next year’s World Cup.
Ireland may well now offer the sterner test seven days later in Dublin, but whatever the result Fitzpatrick believes New Zealand’s hectic five-match schedule has been designed with the tournament in Japan in mind.
“They’re trying to replicate, I think, the knockout stages of the World Cup,” he said. “They’re doing a lot of travelling from Japan and it’s a really good test for them to go back-to-back because some of those players aren’t going to play both games.”
Fitzpatrick, who is chairman of the Laureus World Sports Academy, suggested All Blacks coach Steve Hansen and his fellow selectors had “cast the net pretty wide” in naming a 32-man squad for the tour that will be supplemented by 19 players for the match against Japan on November 3.
“I think Steve Hansen’s got his 40 players I’d say that he’s got lined up for the World Cup,” Fitzpatrick said.
“You’ve got to say whatever Steve Hansen’s doing, he’s doing it right. He never gives an All Blacks jersey away, there’s always a vision.
“We don’t have one-Test All Blacks, which says that they’re doing a great job in their development and scouting and finding players.”
One player who is just starting out on his All Blacks journey is Richie Mo’unga. With World Rugby Player of the Year Beauden Barrett standing in his way, the fly-half has started only one of his four Test appearances so far.
Mo’unga’s performances, both in his limited time in a black shirt and for the Crusaders in Super Rugby, have created a debate in New Zealand about whether he should be given playmaking duties full-time.
Fitzpatrick questions whether moving Ben Smith to the wing to accommodate Barrett at 15 would be worthwhile. “Playing the best full-back in the world on the right wing, is that the right thing to do?”
He believes the emergence of Mo’unga is merely further indication that Test rugby has truly become a 23-man game. “What they (All Blacks coaches) are enjoying is that Barrett’s got pressure on him, which they want,” he explained.
“(Mo’unga) didn’t start very well against South Africa but in Argentina and in Pretoria, outstanding off the bench which has given him a bit of confidence. And then you think back to Barrett, that’s where he made his name was off the bench, and got to a stage when they said ‘he’s got to start’.
“But I think the All Blacks now are looking at some of their best players might come off the bench in that last 20 minutes where they can make a real difference.”
Sean Fitzpatrick was speaking at the Laureus Sport for Good Global Summit in partnership with Allianz. Laureus Sport for Good uses the power of sport to end violence, discrimination and disadvantage.
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