Experimental feature

Listen to this article

Experimental feature

It is a rest weekend for international rugby, but leading English and French players have full domestic championship programmes. Then, over the next six weeks, it's back to the RBS Six Nations, then the Powergen Cup semi-finals, the final two Six Nations weekends, more Zurich Premiership and the Heineken Cup quarter-finals.

In the southern hemisphere, leading players are preparing for next week's start of the new Super 12 season. New Zealanders will follow up with the visit of the British Lions, Tri-Nations internationals against South Africa and Australia, the National Provincial Championship and at least three November internationals in Europe.

Little wonder players get jaded. Their workload has become a concern in the decade since the game went openly professional, a natural issue for the Professional Rugby Players Association, which has commissioned a three-year study - jointly funded with the Rugby Football Union and Premier Rugby - of player burnout.

As is so often necessary for rugby-related expertise, they have gone to New Zealand, commissioning Richard Cresswell, a sports psychologist from Auckland University of Technology, author of a parallel New Zealand study finished last year.

He will be making regular three-week visits to Britain. His first took him to every Premiership club for the interviews with players and coaches which, together with questionnaires, will provide the core of his evidence. He will be returning to individuals over the time of the project to identify changes and the reasons for them.

He hit the Premiership clubs and England's 60-strong elite squad at a busy time, but was impressed by the response he received. "Everybody was very co- operative, as they realise the importance of this. It was the same in New Zealand where only one player turned me down for an interview in three years."

He cannot, so early in the process, speculate as to outcomes - preliminary findings are due in December - or talk at any time about individuals. Nor can he be sure that results from New Zealand, with its different rugby culture and competitive structures, will be echoed in England, but they may provide hints.

It is important to remember that burnout is, as the choice of a psychologist for the study indicates, more than physical exhaustion. Cresswell describes it as "a syndrome with three central characteristics - emotional and physical exhaustion, a sense of reduced accomplishment and devaluation of sport involvement". It is not, he emphasises, terminal. His New Zealand study found it was not the direct cause of many retirements, although by diminishing performance and making players both prone to - and slower to recover from - injury might propel some in that direction.

With many observers concerned about the number of games being played, one of his most striking findings is that not playing is even likelier to lead to burnout. "Clearly playing too much is not good for you, and there's evidence that the cumulative effects of playing year after year can contribute. But what is really bad for you is being left out. We only see the 80 minutes on view at the weekend. We don't see the video analysis, the training and the gym work during the week. A player may take part in all of that, but not get to play at the end of it, leading to disappointment and frustration. The player who is expected to be 'raring to go' because he has been left out or injured recently is likely to be nothing of the sort."

Coaches needed to be skilled in handling players who were not selected, ensuring they still felt motivated, valued and involved. Genuine squad rotation would also have a part to play.

Another New Zealand finding was that players with balanced lives - interests and activities outside rugby - were less vulnerable, confirming arguments long advanced by Graham Henry, the All Blacks and former Wales and British Lions coach. One recommendation in New Zealand was for the appointment of professional development managers to advise players on achieving this balance and preparing for their careers after playing days.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.

Comments have not been enabled for this article.

Follow the topics in this article