The England rugby team’s recent training camp in Brighton has come under close scrutiny as a result of a number of significant injuries to members of the Elite Player Squad (“EPS”) and caused a rift between key stakeholders the RFU and Premiership Rugby Limited (“Premier Rugby”).

Eddie Jones, keen to improve England’s performance at the breakdown, introduced an “education” session on judo led by former Olympic medallist Kate Howey, despite serious injuries resulting from previous similar training sessions.

The judo session resulted in a broken leg and 5 month layoff for high flying Wasp’s rising star Sam Jones and a broken jaw for Bath wing Anthony Watson. Winger Jack Nowell also tore a quadricep during the three day training camp.

There has been a long history of sports stars injuring themselves playing sport outside of their known profession:

  • Rory McIlroy missed the 2015 British Open after rupturing ankle ligaments whilst playing football with his friends;
  • Glenn McGrath famously missed much of the 2005 Ashes series also after rupturing ankle ligaments whilst playing touch rugby in the warm up; and
  • former Rangers striker Marco Negri acknowledged he was never the same player again after detaching a retina whilst playing squash with a team mate.

These incidents could clearly have been avoided but what is the position when the injury occurs during a designated training camp?

There will always be a tension between Premiership Clubs and the RFU regarding injuries sustained by players whilst on international duty. Indeed a Premier Rugby spokesperson commented:

In the interests of player welfare, Premier Rugby believes that England should not be doing full training sessions straight after a Premiership weekend.”

The injuries sustained last week have led several Premiership club coaches to question the intensity of Jones’s training sessions at this point in the season and or the use of judo at all, a technical sport rugby players are not used to. Mark McCall, Director of Rugby at Saracens stated he was “flabbergasted” that the training camp was scheduled so close to the start of the Champions Cup whilst Rob Baxter of Exeter noted his “disappointment” at the training regime put in pace.

Other coaches, and indeed players, were more phlegmatic commenting that it was difficult to see how Jones could properly prepare for the forthcoming autumn internationals without such a training camp and pointing to the significant compensation the clubs now receive as a result of having members in the EPS – reported to be in the region of £80,000 per player.

In July this year a new compensation deal worth in excess of £200m was agreed between the RFU and Premier Rugby under which clubs would, amongst other things, receive significantly enhanced compensation for greater flexibility and access to EPS members during the season. Agreement was also reached to expand the EPS from 33 to 45 players and to increase the number of players attending in season camps from 33 to 36.

Ironically perhaps another key aspect of the deal was to increase player welfare and to ensure EPS members benefited from an increased guaranteed 10 week off season.

No doubt because of this agreement the RFU has come out strongly in defence of the recent training camp stating its date was expressly agreed with Premier Rugby within the new agreement and that there was no suggestion they would not include full contact training. If correct, it would appear difficult for Premier Rugby, or its members, to argue with the RFU’s stated position given the significantly increased compensation its members will receive under the new agreement.

Jones was no doubt trying to replicate the intensity of International rugby in training to ensure that his players were prepared for the step up for the upcoming Tests against South Africa, Fiji, Argentina and Australia. This in turn could be used to build on performances in the summer with a view to taking on the World record equalling All Blacks who look ever more ominous each time they play.

However the true cost of the training session for the RFU, and its relationship with stakeholders, is yet to be seen.