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Last Updated: Thursday, 31 March, 2005, 06:45 GMT 07:45 UK
Rugby in danger of player burnout
By Matt Majendie

Lawrence Dallaglio (left) and Josh Lewsey
Dallaglio and Lewsey are both wary of player burnout
Rugby union's biggest stars are in danger of having their careers cut short by the growing pressures of the game, according to key figures in the sport.

A BBC Sport investigation into rugby 10 years after it turned professional reveals players and player representatives warning of increasing dangers.

  • Former England captain Lawrence Dallaglio says current players could reduce their careers to just one year.

  • Current international Josh Lewsey warns players are being "treated like pawns".

  • And players' union chief Damian Hopley says that, although England has so far avoided doping controversies suffered by other countries, players here could be tempted in the future if pressures are not eased.

    Our investigation reveals for the first time the full impact of the increasingly-congested fixture list and the intensity of the modern game.

    Hopley's solution is a restructuring of the season which could include ditching the lesser European competitions and moving the Powergen Cup to the start of the season.

    And he warns if things don't change there could be a "player revolt".

    Among the problems we found, the most serious were:

    • While the Zurich Premiership has seen attendances at least double in the last eight years, that has been at the cost of a virtual injury "epidemic" in the last two seasons.

    • The 32-game limit meant to protect players is often being exceeded by top internationals.

    • Players have bulked up to such an extent they are lifting weights "twice as heavy as 10 years ago" yet can do little to protect the most vulnerable parts of the body such as knees.

    Our survey of every Zurich Premiership club, which we will publish on Friday, reveals for the first time the extent of the problem.

    Among the most heavily hit, Bath were missing 18 first-team players to injury for one domestic game earlier this season compared with just three out of 40 squad members in January 2003.

    Likewise, England have been riddled with so many injuries that they started their final Six Nations game with just two players from their World Cup-winning starting XV.

    One of those two, Lewsey, told BBC Sport: "At the moment we're pawns in this game of chess, and there's a danger of player burnout if things are not handled properly."

    That threat has become more relevant than ever this season with ever-increasing playing schedules.

    There are players that are so committed they'll last no more than a year or two in the game
    Former England captain Lawrence Dallaglio

    World Cup winner Dallaglio admitted the pressure of playing more matches had been one of the deciding factors in his retirement from international rugby last year.

    He said: "There are players that are so committed that if they carry on like that, they will last no more than a year or two in the game."

    The Rugby Football Union says it is fully committed to player welfare and as a result has carried out an extensive audit into injuries in the game, due out at the end of May.

    And the Professional Rugby players Association is one year into a three-year investigation into player burnout.

    Hopley, the PRA chief executive, warned the increasing pressure on players and threat of burnout could have grave consequences.

    He told BBC Sport: "I don't see drugs are a problem right now. In fact, rugby is a tremendously honest sport.

    Wales' Gareth Thomas:
    "There's not quite the risk people fear"
    Ireland's Geordan Murphy:
    "Rugby's in danger of being a money-making machine"
    Read their full views on Friday
    Leeds coach Jon Callard:
    "We're asking for more pounds of flesh from our players"
    Bath physio Chris Mallac:
    "The Premiership is physically the hardest league in the world"
    Read their full views on Monday

    "But if we keep making demands on the players, the temptation could eventually be too much."

    British rugby has yet to be rocked by any real drug controversy.

    UK Sport, which is responsible for drug testing in rugby union, has carried out a total of 297 doping tests this season.

    There were just six findings in total - one failed test for ephedrine, two for marijuana and one for cocaine. The other two were cases where players failed to comply with their dope test.

    Punishments varied from a severe reprimand to a two-year ban. The most high-profile player to be punished was London Irish prop Pierre Durant, who received a six-week ban earlier this month after being found guilty of smoking marijuana.

    John Scott, director of drug-free sport at UK Sport, said: "The level of positive findings within rugby has been relatively low over the last few years compared with other sports.

    "However, it is important not to be complacent which is why we will continue to work in partnership with each governing body to ensure a suitable level of testing and education is in place."

    On Friday: Players, coaches and fans give their thoughts on professionalism 10 years on, plus we publish the full, shocking injury list of Zurich Premiership players.

    Interview: Lawrence Dallaglio

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