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How do we hold on to our best players?

Digby Ioane is back, but this time with the Crusaders. (Photo by Paul Barkley/LookPro)
Expert
26th April, 2014
67
2549 Reads

Are we seeing the last of the 100-cap Test international, the loyal player who ends their career in exactly the same place as it began? In the current state of the game, it looks like it.

Of all the 29 active and retired players that have achieved 100 international Test appearances, only Dan Carter and George Smith ventured outside their native country and returned to the Test arena.

However both of their international sojourns deserve an asterisk.

Carter spent a season at Perpignan in 2008-09, only making five appearances for the French side after an achilles injury. George Smith was brought out of semi-retirement in Japan to replace David Pocock during last year’s British and Irish Lions series.

I’m leaving out the two Italians Sergio Parisse and Martin Castrogiovanni. They have remained in Europe, competing in the Heineken Cup which is only a stone’s through away from home. In this environment, coaches can constantly keep an eye on their progress.

Of the current Wallabies squad, Adam Ashley Cooper and Stephen Moore are the most experienced members, both with 91 Test appearances.

They will likely go on to achieve the milestone prior or during next year’s World cup in the UK.

So perhaps it’s not the end of an era.

But it’s hard to see anyone other than Richie McCaw eclipsing Brian O’Driscoll as rugby’s most capped international player.

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Many factors point towards the opposite, suggesting we should be seeing far more centurions.

The average age of Test debutants has dropped dramatically. More matches are being played within a season, and spring tours are now month-long excursions. There is greater demand for rugby than there has ever been.

However it’s a combination of this demand and the consequences that it brings that contribute to players being unable to reach the statistical heights of household names like George Gregan, Ronan O’Gara, Jason Leonard and George Smith who have gone before them.

Both the mental and physical implications of the modern game and the increasingly profitable overseas opportunities available are the main reasons why players are either choosing, or being forced, to cut their international careers short.

The physical demand on the professional rugby player is the highest it has ever been. GPS units worn by players in games tell us that they are covering more distance, running at higher speeds, and encountering greater impacts and collisions than in previous seasons.

All this puts greater stress on the joints and muscles, leading to a higher risk of succumbing to an injury.

Most rugby players have had time on the sidelines at some time during their career – unfortunately some more than others. How many Test caps David Pocock would have amassed by now if he hadn’t been forced to undergo two knee reconstructions within the last two seasons?

Concussion of players is occurring more frequently, forcing the IRB to adopt new on-field testing regulations. Player welfare is at the forefront of the game, as insurance companies battle to provide clubs and individuals the best possible cover.

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Ten years ago this was not in place. Players would play on with severe injuries and concussions because there was no way of detecting how bad it was.

Nowadays, there are scans and ultrasounds that can pick up even the slightest of injuries, forcing players to rest, recover and to follow the return to play procedures put in place by the medical staff.

Mentally, the demand is just as influential on the length of players careers. Higher profiles, increased media exposure, and the constant pressure to perform on the big stage all weigh heavily on the mind of the the professional rugby player.

James O’Connor is an example of this. He has already spoken of the benefits of getting away from the spotlight in the United Kingdom and what it has done for his personal game and mindset as a person.

As much as everybody wants to play every game of every season, there is always the risk of playing ‘too much rugby’, and getting burnt out.

Individual players are managed throughout extensive Super rugby and international seasons, to allow them to perform at their best each time they take the field.

In some special cases like Richie McCaw, players are even given months off to switch off and get away from the game, in the hope that it will prolong their international career.

The lure of contracts too good to refuse overseas is the final factor that is impacting on shortened international careers.

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In many ways it is the most concerning of all, as rugby boards can no longer rely on the loyalty and ambition of a player to wear their nation’s jersey.

You can’t put a price on a Wallaby jersey, and the proudest moment of any player’s career is when he wears it, but it’s keeping them in the jersey once it’s on is the main problem facing bodies like the ARU.

In many cases, like that of Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell, both currently at Toulon, form and performance contributed to their move, so it’s hard to know if they would have worn the gold again.

But in the case of incumbent Wallabies captain Ben Mowen, who will move to France at the end of this year’s Super Rugby season, the difficulty is clearly evident.

Up until October last year, it seemed Ireland had the best way of encouraging their homegrown players to remain in the country rather than talking up lucrative contracts elsewhere in Europe.

Under a scheme introduced in 2002 by then finance minister Charlie McCreevy, professional sports people across any code could reclaim 40 per cent of the tax paid on earnings from the best 10 years of their careers so long as they were tax resident in Ireland when making the claim.

This meant a generous payout to the likes of O’Driscoll and co. on the announcement of their retirement.

However, the scheme was amended late last year to individuals being able to make the claim outside of Ireland, so long as they finish their career and make the claim within an European Economic Area.

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While not impacting heavily on the national side , as Irish players who play elsewhere in Europe like Johnny Sexton at Racing Metro are still considered for Test matches, the effect felt down the line is more of a concern.

The struggle for provinces to hold on to their big name players, who have a major role in mentoring the academies and attracting others to the club will now become harder as a result of the change in scheme.

Although the game has changed dramatically over the past 10 years, the best thing about rugby is that it still retains its authenticity and rawness.

Players are getting paid more, but nowhere near the ridiculous contracts seen in football, baseball and basketball, where the ‘business’ is more important than the sport itself.

I hope it remains this way.

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