Byline: MALCOLM FOLLEY
EACH year since England defeated Australia to win the World Cup in Sydney in November 2003, Jason Robinson says a man has arrived at Sale Rugby Club with a diligent brief and a catalogue of well-intentioned questions. His mission has been to conduct a survey on player burnout.
'We're always asked the same questions from the same guy every year,' said Robinson last week. 'We always give the same answers. And we always get the same results. Nothing.' And in that empty but devastating conclusion, Robinson cuts to what he believes is the true malaise of English rugby. For the man who has won every battle honour in the game, climaxing his career with the solitary try on the night England captured rugby's greatest prize, his country's fall from the stars into the gutter of the international game has been a sporting disaster waiting to happen.
'International rugby players in England are supposed to be the thoroughbred racehorses of the game, but too often they end up being put to work as carthorses,' he said.
Even before he announced his retirement from the international game to devote himself to his family 14 months ago - a position he is now considering reversing - Robinson had complained of being wearied by the endless cycle of games and constant travel.
The bus that had driven the England World Cup team through the streets of London in triumph had hardly been garaged when Robinson confessed he was on the brink of meltdown. 'I just wanted to run away,' he admitted.
Robinson was far from being alone in feeling drained, he was just courageous enough to air his discontent. The plight of the current England team, beaten eight times in their last nine matches, suggests that not a single lesson has been learned.
'The system at present fails us,' said Robinson. 'In England, players are expected to work wonders week in, week out, year after year, without rest.
'Look at the programme coming up for England after those four autumn Tests: the Six Nations Championship, followed by a summer tour, followed by pre-World Cup matches, followed by the World Cup itself, and then a swift return to the Premiership season.
'Something has to give. Players in other countries, like New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, are given a rest to enable them to prepare in the right way for the important competitions. Ireland have adopted a similar programme. I don't think it's any coincidence that we're getting the international results that we've had.' Nor can it be coincidence that the injury toll afflicting England players is so high. Sale's current England stars, Charlie Hodgson and Andrew Sheridan, face spending the rest of the season on the sidelines after being hurt during the autumn Test matches.
Hodgson, England's leading fly-half in the continued absence through injury of Jonny Wilkinson - still to play for England since the night his dropped goal stole the Webb Ellis Cup from the Australians - is in danger of missing the World Cup for a second time.
Robinson suspects that England, now ranked just seventh in the world, could be trapped in a downward spiral until the club-orcountry conflict is resolved. 'The present set-up is fine for club players but the real issues surround the demands we make on our internationals,' he said.
'At Sale, we're about to play eight matches in 33 days. Rightly, club teams are fighting and scrapping for every point but don't be surprised if more of the guys are exhausted in January on the eve of the Six Nations.' THESE are testing times for Rob Andrew, just three months into his role as England's elite rugby director and seeking to overturn years of amateur management at the RFU.
Damian Hopley, chief executive of the Professional Rugby Players' Association, insisted last week: 'Rob's position has to have teeth. It's time for the RFU to let him take total control of the England rugby agenda. …