The England team that beat up Ireland last weekend was twice the team that lost to the All Blacks in November. There were five changes in the pack (one positional) and two in the backs for the Ireland game. Both Vunipolas were missing against the All Blacks. Indeed the match in Ireland was the first time that Mako Vunipola, Billy Vunipola and Manu Tuilagi have ever started together in the same England XV.
Perhaps the only surprise is that the bash brothers are still playing at all. The schedule in England is an absolute scandal. A few years ago someone plucked the entirely arbitrary and fanciful figure of a playing limit of 32 games a season.
Why that number, you may ask. Good question. The number wasn’t based on medical science. It was based on an already ridiculous fixture schedule. It was based on the 41 matches that Dan Cole had played in the 2012-13 season, a schedule that left the prop with a bulging disc in his neck and nine months out of the game. It was based on continuing to exploit the players, while seeming to care.
Last season England’s hooker Jamie George played 34 games. Over the limit, you might guess. But no, statistics can be manipulated. A full 32 games consists of 2,560 minutes and George did not play every minute of those games.
Never mind that he is a front-row forward. Never mind about all the training sessions where 38 per cent of injuries occur. Never mind that George plays for Saracens, England’s most successful club and therefore the one which ends up playing the most games.
The three players who headed the global list of both matches played and minutes played last season all came from Saracens. George, Mako Vunipola and Owen Farrell topped the amount of games played. Farrell, Maro Itoje and Vunipola topped the amount of minutes played.
Itoje and Vunipola have already both broken down this season. The two leading Irishmen in terms of games and minutes played (stats which are dominated by England) are Conor Murray and CJ Stander. They too have both already broken down this season.
The term player welfare constitutes an oxymoron in much of Europe. France scarcely had a team left to bring on the tour of New Zealand last year. Of the French team that should have beaten Wales last weekend, only three started any of the June tests against the All Blacks. But you sometimes wonder how many of the fans here care that they are being sold second-rate goods, so long as the All Blacks keep winning.
Of course New Zealand experiences its own attrition. One fears for the future of Sam Cane, who along with Joe Moody missed that November test against England. But the All Blacks schedule remains almost sensible.
In the year preceding the start of the 2019 World Cup, the All Blacks front-line played three absolutely full-on tests against South Africa, England and Ireland. The players were rested and rotated around the other three internationals against Argentina, Japan and Italy.
Eddie Jones says he has never been able to pick a full-strength England squad, and he never will.
The Super Rugby franchises will play 16 matches in the regular season plus three potential knockout games. That period includes two bye weeks and two mandatory rest weeks for All Blacks players. So you’re looking at something like 21 games before the warm-up matches for the World Cup.
The England Premiership alone involves 22 matches plus two potential knockout games (although England’s players are not available for all of them). The European Champions Cup consists of six matches and potentially another three. Saracens who constitute the bulk of the England pack, are still involved this year.
England then played three full-on Autumn internationals against New Zealand, South Africa and Australia in November last year, and have four brutal Six Nations games against Ireland, France, Wales and Scotland. It is insane.
The All Blacks’ Liam Squire has been licking his wounds and feeling the pain recently, saying; «The body took a hiding last year. The way I like to play it’s the risk I take. I spent the off-season trying to get the body ready to take those hits and play the style I want to.
«Getting up in the morning was some of the harder mornings I’ve had to endure in rugby. Most mornings both shoulders were battling to move and it took a while to warm up. I knew my body was starting to shut down a bit which wasn’t a good sign.»
But England’s Courtney Lawes makes Squire look like a flexible teenager just setting out. Lawes is already close to becoming a cripple. A bulging disc in his back became a torn disc in September. Lawes still came off the bench against the All Blacks a few weeks later. In the previous month he hadn’t been able to run. Just walking was painful.
Lawes is loth to take painkillers and Chris Boyd, the second row’s coach at Northampton, says he is so chilled that «sometimes you think he’s asleep vertically.» It all means that Lawes will never man the barriers to protest his treatment. He will keep on keeping on until he is completely smashed to bits.
England’s Cole and Owen Franks are the same age. Cole is a wreck, Franks is still in fair shape. Cole’s view is that his grandfather broke his back when a pit collapsed on him and so his logic follows; «Would I prefer to do what I’m doing and risk long-term health problems? Yeah. I know what I’ve signed up for. You can’t be protected against everything.»
England’s former hooker George Chuter called it a Mephistophelean pact. He once said, «If you want to get to the top level you’ve got to make sacrifices. And it’s not just your time, or a bag of chips – it’s sacrificing your long‑term health. You want to have that time in the sun. But unfortunately it’s a deal with the devil.»
In England the devil is represented by the unholy alliance between the RFU and the clubs. Satan takes the players to the mountain top, points to the World Cup on the horizon, and then takes them on a never-ending route march on burning desert sand to get there.
New Zealand blew their sevens chances at the 2016 Olympics by over-working their players. They won’t make the same mistake before this year’s World Cup. But meanwhile the players of England are burning in the fires of hell. They will be toast by Tokyo.
It is one of so many reasons why the All Blacks rule the world.