Here it is, right on schedule. The breakdown in relations between the Rugby Football Union and Premiership Rugby Limited.
A timely arrival, right in conjunction with England’s loss of form and a Rugby World Cup just over a year away.
The sailing had been all too smooth over the last three seasons, afterall.
Fresh off the back of an extremely financially successful RWC in 2015, the RFU and PRL signed a ground-breaking Professional Game agreement in 2016, giving Eddie Jones a level of access to his players that no previous England coach had enjoyed during the professional era and providing the Premiership clubs with the most extensive compensation package in the history of the competition.
Over the first four years of the deal, which will conclude at the end of the 2019/20 season, the Premiership clubs are set to earn £112m from the RFU, with at least that amount agreed to be paid again from 2020 to 2024, but with the scope to increase, should revenues in the game rise between now and then.
Everything was rosy in England’s garden.
The clubs and the RFU were cooperating harmoniously, England were marching forward on the field and advances in player welfare seemed to be being made, thanks also to a deal between the RFU, PRL and the Rugby Players Association, which had been struck in 2015.
Good times and English rugby inevitably fail to last, though, and tensions and frayed nerves are beginning to emerge between the two parties.
After enjoying a relatively injury-free debut season, Jones’ charges have had less luck in the past two seasons, with critics keen to point the finger at the intensity of Jones’ training sessions, something which had been championed as a primary cause for England’s excellence in the 2015/16 season.
It led to Bath owner Bruce Craig breaking ranks recently, labelling the situation of players being injured with England as “totally unacceptable” following the news that Bath loosehead Beno Obano could face 12 months out from the game, after suffering multiple ligament and hamstring tendon damage whilst training with England.
Unsurprisingly to anyone who has followed Jones’ career over the last 20 years, the Australian was quick to fire back.
The England head coach said that he hadn’t “seen any figures to suggest that they are [unacceptable]”.
“No one within our staff has suggested they are, but Bruce is obviously an expert in training ground injuries, so I’ll have to be subservient to his greater knowledge.”
Jones’ stinging retort has not gone unnoticed with PRL, either, with the organisation’s CEO Mark McCafferty describing the relationship as having “hit a roadblock” and that it would be a subject of discussion at the upcoming Professional Game Board meeting in June.
Craig, too, chose to hit back at the comments by Jones, when speaking to The Telegraph.
“Mr Jones’ cynical remarks on an important player welfare issues are inappropriate.”
“If his judgement that 15 serious injuries in England training and a career-ending injury for Sam Jones is acceptable and doesn’t warrant explanation, apology or some deeper analysis, then that is the problem.”
Disharmony between the two organisations is nothing new and it has been a battle long-waged by both sides but following the ground-breaking deal between the two in 2016 and the recent success enjoyed by England, most people would have hoped not to see these kinds of tensions rear their head until much closer to the 2024 date that the current deal expires.
It’s no secret that Jones pushes his players hard in training, and creates an environment where comfort is at a premium and work rate is not just expected, it’s demanded. It’s something which splits opinion on Jones and always has, with the Australian receiving as many plaudits as he does criticisms for his intense approach.
He’s also not likely to change at this point in his career. This is the way he has always done things.
It won him friends early in his tenure as the Wallabies head coach and lost him some towards the end. They made the final at the 2003 RWC and certainly weren’t a worse outfit for Jones’ presence, they just happened to come up against an England side that is arguably the best to have ever left these shores.
Years later in his role with Japan, certain players were not good fits in the set-up because of his rigid way of doing things. As coach, he wasn’t going to bend to accommodate particular players – something his critics will point to in his selections as England head coach – but he took Japan to a higher level of play than we expected they were capable of.
With that in mind, there doesn’t seem to be much that can be said or done in the upcoming PGB meeting to change Jones’ approach.
And why would you want to?
The RFU hired Jones to be Jones. Not Jones-lite or semi-Jones.
If the RFU wanted a different approach, they wouldn’t have hired him in the first place or, having discovered more about him as a coach over his first two seasons, offered him an extension beyond the 2019 RWC back in January.
There’s really only one way to make these tensions disappear in the short-term and that’s to start winning games again.
England winning has no tangible short-term benefit to Premiership clubs. Sure, a successful England will help grow the sport and therefore the potential appeal of the Premiership to new fans, but in relation to losing valuable players to injury, it doesn’t really register in importance.
And yet club owners, chairmen, directors of rugby and coaches will all be more content if England get back on the winning track. They won’t be happy about losing the players, but you can bet your bottom dollar that there’ll be less angry backlashes and retorts.
It’s easy to criticise the England set-up when the team is losing. It’s a lot harder when they’re winning.
So, no pressure, Eddie.
You’re not just playing to beat the Springboks and prepare for the RWC, you’re playing to save the future of harmonious RFU and PRL cooperation and, consequently, the future of rugby in this country.
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