Monday 25 January 2021 2:00 pm

Player welfare mustn't be forgotten as rugby prepares to enter new era of commercialisation

The summer of 2020 marked 25 years since the deal between News Corporation and Sanzar that changed rugby union forever, taking it into the unknown territory of professionalism. 

Today, there is more uncertainty than ever surrounding the future rules and scheduling of the game on a global level.

Player welfare has become a hot topic, with Covid-19 presenting an opportunity for the sport to improve conditions for its most important stakeholders: the players.

Getting bigger and stronger is now a requirement for those wanting to get to the top of rugby. A study found the average weight of England’s 1991 World Cup team was 14st 8lb; at the 2019 tournament it was 16st 6lb. 

While professionalism has meant progress in developing better athletes, that progress has pushed the sport to a dangerous tipping point for player welfare.

The 2020-21 Premiership season started less than four weeks after the previous season ended, with international rugby taking place in between.

Twelve months of non-stop rugby looks likely, provided scheduled fixtures aren’t impacted by the pandemic. 

It may be an attractive calendar for fans, clubs, unions and sponsors, but the physical and mental strains this will have on players is difficult to ignore.  

Premiership Rugby’s revised fixture schedule last season required some clubs to play three games in eight days, raising questions whether player welfare is a genuine priority of theirs and the Rugby Football Union (RFU). 

While some players responded well to this challenge, others said it was unsustainable

Concussion conundrum

The most devastating result of the increased physicality in the modern game is the rate of head injuries.

That has been highlighted by eight former professionals, including England’s 2003 Rugby World Cup winner Steve Thompson, taking legal action against the game’s authorities for negligence after they were diagnosed with early-onset dementia. 

This will act as a call for further review and change, whether it be gradual amendments in the way players are managed or a shift in attitudes towards player welfare. 

Adjustments to laws and refereeing interpretations have been seen across the game, including the new high-tackle framework, designed to reduce the number of dangerous contacts to the head, which saw a huge reduction in concussion cases, compared to 2018. 

While this rule change had significant player welfare benefits, yellow and red card offences rose by 74 and 138 per cent respectively.

Reducing the amount of games played by players in a season is a popular suggestion to help player welfare. 

Players in England are currently limited to 35 match involvements (20 minutes or more) and 30 full game matches in a season. 

Cutting this to 20-25 games would give players longer recovery periods and potentially create a higher standard of rugby.

Since the Covid-19 outbreak, reducing the amount of contact training has been debated, which could have similar effect to fewer games. And if the on-pitch product improves, it becomes more appealing to broadcasters and brand partners.

Global expansion

The Rugby Players Association’s frosty relationship with Premiership Rugby has not helped to advance essential player welfare initiatives. 

Although the Professional Game Board confirmed a series of new initiatives in August 2020, the relationship between the RPA, Premiership Rugby and the RFU must be strengthened to ensure the game progresses in line with improved player welfare.

Changing the nature of the game and how it’s played, including reducing the size of pitches and the number of players in a team, is not a viable solution to solve the issue at hand. Such changes impinge upon the founding principles of the game and go against the sport’s aspirations for global expansion.

CVC Capital Partners’ recent investments in the game is crucial to its existence and growth after Oakwell Sports Advisory forecast the Premiership would lose up to £67.2m because of Covid-19. 

Despite the game’s much-needed cash windfall, it’s unknown how player welfare will be prioritised when a multinational private equity firm’s biggest concern is revenue.  

There is a need for rugby’s governing bodies to base decisions around maximising commercial benefit to ensure rugby can compete with other sports on a global level. But for the integrity and future of the game, that decision making mustn’t come at the expense of players’ welfare.

Max Senior is an account executive at global sports marketing agency rEvolution. He is also a founder of The Ted Senior Foundation championing good mental health and working to prevent suicide.