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RFU remains blasé while Maro Itoje is flogged like a carthorse

Maro Itoje of England looks on in the changing room following the Guinness Six Nations 2024 match between France and England at Groupama Stadium on March 16, 2024 in Lyon, France
A litany of injuries to key players should be evidence enough of importance of playing limits - Getty Images/Dan Mullan

Here is a list of forwards from England’s World Cup squad who have suffered injury lay-offs of eight weeks or more this season: Ollie Chessum, George Martin, Ben Earl, Jack Willis, Tom Curry, Bevan Rodd and Lewis Ludlam. Ellis Genge, meanwhile, became the latest casualty last week after suffering a calf injury that rules him out of the tour to Japan and New Zealand.

That is an attrition rate that should be setting alarm bells ringing somewhere. Whether anyone is listening to them is another matter. The blasé attitude taken by the Rugby Football Union towards the prospect of Maro Itoje breaking a player welfare limit is concerning.

In a ten-team Premiership, it should be next to impossible for a player to exceed a limit of 35 match involvements or 30 full game equivalents (2400 minutes). It would be like setting the speed limit at 140mph. And even when they have been busted doing 147mph in the outside lane, the RFU seem to have just shrugged and said ‘well at least we were wearing a seatbelt.’

To suggest that it is fine because at least Itoje is not breaking both the 30 game full equivalent and the 35 game match involvements is a cynical if unconvincing attempt to shift the goalposts. It is amazing how player welfare is everyone’s No 1 concern right up until you really need a player to play in every minute of the business end of the season.

These limits exist for a very good reason, being based on the analysis by University of Bath which was published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport. Its conclusion unequivocally stated that playing more than 30 games leads to a “significantly higher injury burden in the following season.” Yet here we are in a position that one of England’s true thoroughbreds is being flogged like a carthorse. And some people have wondered aloud why Itoje has not always shown his best form over the past 12 months. This is why.

When Telegraph Sport noted that Itoje was on course to break the limit following the Six Nations, the RPA general secretary Christian Day stated: “At the end of the day, it does not benefit anyone, least of all the player, to be playing beyond the limits because they are set at the point where their risk of injury increases. These are the league’s prized jewels and you are putting them at risk.”

Inevitably, the problem lies between club and country. Phil Morrow, Saracens general manager, is widely seen as one of the best performance directors in the sport. So too Aled Walters with England. Both will minutely monitor Itoje’s training and game load. Day to day they have his best interests at heart. But ultimately one side needed to rest the 29-year-old for a one or two more games and chose not to. This is what happens when you balance a player’s best interests versus the team’s.

The proposed enhanced Elite Player Contracts should help in this matter to coordinate more holistic individual management plans. The real test will come in whether both parties can agree in advance which games a player will be rested for, particularly as next season the limit is set to be reduced to a total of 30 game involvements under the new Professional Game Partnership.

As the example of Itoje shows when push comes to shove, player welfare comes second.

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