For this week’s break in the Six Nations, all but one of the teams have decided to some extent to release players back for club duty (little evidence of Italian players in action). This kind of act would simply not occur in other sports. If the England cricket team had a week off, there is absolutely no way that integral squad members would be released for club duty. Yes, the schedule of international cricket is much heavier than it is for rugby, but county sides are lucky if they see their household England names turn out for them 3 times a season!
Fringe players from the first 2 weeks of action have sensibly been allowed to return to their clubs to get some game time and attempt to put in a performance that stakes a claim for a week 3 starting berth. However, alongside fringe players, some starting players have also been released. Plenty of France’s first choice XV have featured this weekend, with scrum-half Jean-Marc Doussain actually starting for Toulouse. Contrastingly, no starters from England’s victorious trip to Scotland last week featured for their club sides.
There are, of course, certain risks with letting players leave their nations training environment. The most blatant is that instrumental Wales captain Sam Warburton would turn up to play for the Cardiff Blues and injure himself within 5 minutes of kick off. Alongside this obvious danger, the international coach may feel that letting his players go trotting off around Europe to join up with their clubs is counterproductive. Breaking up the squad may effect momentum and players may have to adapt their playing style according to the whim of their club coaches; something which again can’t be helpful.
However, for the players, whose other option is having to wait and train for two weeks before there is prospect of a match, leaving is likely to be the preferred option. It is bound to be good to escape the pressure that surrounds the championship and return to play a normal league match from firmly inside their comfort zone. The French players will have returned to their clubs full of confidence, and in many cases they made substitute appearances which had mutual benefit for them and their clubs. Louis Picamoles, given the first half off, came on in the second 40 for Toulouse and gave the team some added impetus, helping them to a hard fought victory at lowly Biarritz. At the other end of the scale, the Scotland players were likely very glad to leave their national camp after a horrendous first two weeks. For instance, I can imagine Johnnie Beattie, a participant in the first two matches for his country, greatly enjoyed getting a run out for the last 20 minutes as Montpellier put 50 points on Perpignan. In fact, even from the bench, the sight of someone in his team actually scoring a try must have been positively uplifting.
Not only can the club return be good for the players mentally, it keeps them sharp as there is no substitute for match practice. However, will featuring for their club side this weekend, when they could have been watching with their feet up, lead to fatigue later in the tournament?
I think it’s very likely that the players were keen to return to their clubs for the weekend. However, taking that point of view out of the equation, which route would you go down if the release of the players was your call? I suppose it boils down to whether you prefer to have your stars wrapped up in cotton wool, but run the risk of them losing match sharpness…or whether you allow them to try and find some form/maintain what they already have, while risking injury and consequently losing them for the rest of the tournament. The only big injury news of this week has been that of Dan Cole, now a major doubt for the summer tour of New Zealand, after a neck injury was discovered during a gym session with the England setup.
Cole was presumably kept with the squad in order to avoid potential injury if allowed to go to Leicester, but clearly the move backfired. As yet, no players involved in club duty this weekend appear to have picked up injuries, but even if that remains so, hindsight is a wonderful thing and a certain amount of risk was taken in releasing them for action. The question remains, whose policy is better and will the taking of their respective stance this weekend lead to tangible benefits later in the championship? The ‘laissez-faire’ (apologies) attitude of the France setup, or the safe motherly option employed by the Italians and English?