Ollie Phillips: Six Nations reform plans are a farcical threat to welfare

Ollie Phillips
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Billy Vunipola has warned that players could strike over playing schedules (Source: Getty)

I would be completely opposed to a shortened Six Nations. It would undermine player welfare in a massive way and erode the integrity of the whole tournament should England and France be set apart from other countries.

The Rugby Players’ Association have said their members would oppose the proposal, which would see England and France sit out the first week of the Six Nations and the tournament be reduced from seven weeks to six, and I’m glad.

The momentum behind the plan, which appears less likely to happen as the week has progressed, is from governing body World Rugby’s efforts towards a restructuring of the global calendar from the 2019-20 season onwards.

A central thrust to World Rugby’s need for a global calendar is a better standard of player welfare but how the hell can it be better for their welfare to play five international matches in as many weeks?

I’m surprised that the Rugby Football Union (RFU) has entertained such an idea. For me, it’s inconsiderate and naive, while sacrificing player welfare in this day and age is farcical.

Only last week Saracens and England No8 Billy Vunipola warned that players may be forced to take industrial action and go on strike if the number of matches in a season were not reduced.

I understand why Premiership clubs would be in favour of it; they want their best players available for as many games as possible and the real momentum behind the suggestion is probably financial.

Clubs having their best players available for longer means a greater chance of success, better opportunity for prize money, higher attendances, while the RFU would have to pay out less compensation for England players being absent.

But player welfare is such an important issue and the demands of the game, particularly at international level, have never been greater. Games of that standard are so intense and energy-sapping.

At the same time, however, there is huge pressure to play. Some clubs and coaches no doubt apply more pressure than others to try and get a player back earlier from injury, for instance.

As a professional player, your whole drive and focus is: how do I become bigger, faster and stronger? If somebody tells you that you’re going to be out injured for six months, your first thought is: ‘how do I get back in five?’

The way the game is at the moment there are also huge incentives to play. If you’re an England international and are selected in the matchday squad then you receive £25,000. That’s motivation in itself.

It’s only natural that a player may try and conceal some sort of injury because of the financial rewards. But put money aside, who wouldn’t want to play for their country in front of 80,000 supporters at Twickenham?

All things considered, a six-week Six Nations doesn’t work for me. England’s chances of being successful at a truncated tournament are also reduced. Players that get injured have a better chance of recovery if there are fallow weeks, while those rest days also facilitate freshness.

It would appear that this plan is becoming less likely by the day and I just cannot believe it was ever entertained. The Six Nations is a much more effective competition in its current guise.

Ollie Phillips is a former England Sevens captain and now a director at PwC, focusing on organisational, cultural and technological change.@OlliePhillips11

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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