Gareth Dyer's rugby column

Many Easters ago, I was part of a junior tour undertaken by Preston Grasshoppers.

Thursday, 13th April 2017, 10:46 am
Updated Tuesday, 9th May 2017, 6:29 pm
Gareth Dyer

We went for a long weekend to South Wales, we were aged around 15.

It was part of your rugby education to go on tour and an excellent time was had by all. We played a couple of tough games had plenty of fun and took in one of the high-profile Easter games that went on back then, namely Cardiff playing against the Barbarians at Cardiff Arms Park.

That fixture had been played annually for nearly a hundred years by the time the Preston Grasshoppers Under-15s arrived in Cardiff.

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I remember seeing a great many top club and international players strutting their stuff for the Baabaas whilst Cardiff had a good number of their Welsh international players on view.

It was a feast of attacking rugby. I recall Rob Howley – now part of the current Welsh coaching team – being electric with the ball in hand and engaging in humour with the crowd.

He wasn’t the only player who enjoyed some good-humoured interaction with the crowd. All the players on display seemed to be enjoying themselves and I remember the brilliant Jeremy Guscott mesmerising the Cardiff backs without even breaking sweat.

It was a great opportunity to watch top level players strutting their stuff in the flesh without the shackles of team orders or tactics.

Unfortunately, there were only three more Easter Tours undertaken by the Baabaas after our visit in 1993. With the advent of professionalism, it was deemed there would be no room in the season for such occasions.

So why the walk down memory lane?

This week, the Leicester Tigers captain and England hooker Tom Youngs made some very strong comments about the new “structured season” that will see the Aviva Premiership season extended to a 10-month slog.

Youngs comments were that the proposals “fill the players with dread”. He went on to say that the season is already long enough and that the idea that a longer season brings player welfare benefits is a complete red herring.

I totally agree with his comments. I mean, how can extending the season – that is already a month too long – benefit player welfare?

Yes, there might not now be club games during the international windows but do those proposing these changes expect top club players not involved in Test matches to be given time off? Of course not. Clubs will still expect their players to retain peak fitness during these spells and the amount of training players do is already a major bone of contention.

On my recent monthly rugby radio show for BBC Lancashire, I spoke to John Beattie, a leading voice in pressurising the rugby authorities to take the concussion epidemic seriously.

He made a telling point that whilst those players concussed during matches can be seen in plain sight, but who knows what damage is done to players on the training ground from excessive training? It has long since been suggested that players should have a longer pre-season break.

As Youngs went on to say: “Pre-season is so vital to get us ready to go through the season. I know in June, if I don’t go on any tours or anything, I have five weeks off and that is nice to know. Even when pre-season games come around, it feels a little bit like you have only played last week.”

So, if physically the game is going in the wrong direction, what about the mental aspect?

Yes, players are being well rewarded to play at the top level but I wonder what their overriding memories of playing the sport will be – that’s if they are lucky enough to be fit and healthy enough to remember once they retire.

That game in Cardiff many years ago had the players smiling, strutting their stuff and afterwards partaking in a few post-match drinks and high jinks.

The sight of Guscott clutching a bottle of beer whilst signing unlimited autographs and having a laugh and a joke with the Cardiff crowd after the final whistle reinforced my desire to want to be involved in the game.

This weekend it is pleasing to hear that many clubs will continue the traditions of touring their mini and junior teams. Despite the hoops that now must be jumped through, it is vital that clubs continue to tour.

However, I am sure that the youngsters who go to any high-profile match over the holiday weekend will not witness from the players involved the same “joie de vivre” that we witnessed on our Easter Tour in 1993.

Less can quite often give you more and perhaps the game’s authorities need to look again at what their current proposals really mean for the sport.