Harlequins flanker Chris Robshaw says a proper off-season is crucial to recover physically and mentally, as he and his England team-mates wait to be told details of the longer season proposed by the Premiership for the season after next.
Several top players have commented unfavourably recently on the idea of the Premiership running from the start of September through to late June from 2019, although the league’s administrators say the number of matches played will not go up, and individual rest will be catered for.
The Rugby Players’ Association are due to confer with the Rugby Football Union and the Premiership soon – more than six months since the proposed extension was announced – and Robshaw said: “I hope so because in all honesty no one has actually come and addressed the players about how that proposed season is going to be. It’s all inklings here and there, you read stuff in the paper, you don’t really know what’s going on.
“As players, we want to know what the proposal is, first and foremost. We always talk about welfare, but you’ve got to look at how much the guys are going to play and what’s going to happen. As players and as a union we’re going to stick together and do what’s best for us, to make sure we can go and compete every single week, but also to have the right off-season so we are fresh and ready to again the next year, and the year after that.
“No one’s actually come in and said ‘this is what is proposed’. We hear the season is going to be extended to 11 months [including the Test window altered to July], which from a player’s point of view, is not great, is it? We’ll do what’s best for us, as players, whether it’s the RPA stepping in or as a group of players from England or the clubs.
“You do have to look after the body and you can’t just be turned out time and time again, until you break and another guy comes in.
“The off-season is a massive part of the calendar and we’ve got to be careful with that.”
Robshaw took five weeks off in the summer after touring Argentina with his country, and says he came back refreshed.
“It’s not so much recovering fitness – that comes back in two or three weeks,” the former England captain said.
“It’s the mental side of it. Actually switching off, sitting on a beach and forgetting about rugby for a couple of weeks. Everyone’s the same, there’s a lot of travel, you’re always thinking about the last games you’ve played, how you can improve.
“Then you get to that point when you relax, and then on to that point where you say ‘I’m ready now’, of being ready to get back to work. And then you come back invigorated and excited and you can’t wait to get back involved.
“It’s a long year, especially if – fingers crossed – you don’t pick up a big injury. You’ve got to look after things, it’s a rollercoaster of ups and downs and you’ve got to make sure you’re healthy, and that you’re fit and enjoying your rugby.”
Harlequins’ director of rugby John Kingston gave his team three days off after their disappointing loss to La Rochelle in the first round of the European Champions Cup last weekend.
But as the London side continue to deal with a heavy toll of injuries, Robshaw admitted the extra recovery time before their crucial second tie away to Wasps this Sunday has been spent “stewing” over the 34-27 setback against their French opponents.
And Robshaw has demanded improvement from the Quins defence if they are not to be condemned to a likely exit from Europe’s elite-competition pool stage almost as soon as they have returned from two years away in the Challenge Cup.
Former All Blacks centre Francis Saili made his long-awaited debut against La Rochelle, off the bench, after a summer move from Munster.
But powerful No.8 Renaldo Bothma, the captain of Namibia, has yet to pull on a Quins jersey, while Demetri Catrakilis, the South Africa fly-half signed from Montpellier, is out until Christmas after fracturing a bone in his throat, 13 minutes into the second match of the season.
While teenaged No.10 Marcus Smith has been ushered centre stage, mostly to rave reviews, the 28-year-old Catrakilis now needs surgery to improve the state of his breathing, and he has joined Sam Twomey, James Chisholm, Joe Gray, Rob Buchanan, Luke Wallace, Charlie Walker and the suspended Kyle Sinckler and retired George Lowe among the talent unavailable to Harlequins in the short- or long-term.
“Every team’s got injuries and it’s about getting the best guys out there to put in good performances,” said Robshaw, whose side went into Europe in seventh place in this season’s Aviva Premiership with three wins from six matches.
“The three days off and the fact that the next game is on Sunday means we can go full gung-ho for Wasps, because that’s going to be another challenge, going back up to Coventry where we managed to win a month ago.
“They’ve got their injury worries too, but we’ll try and get ourselves ready.
“It’s nice to have time off but whenever you lose, you’re always stewing on it. If you win and have three days off, it’s nicer. If you lose, you’re itching to put things right. And that’s the right mentality for the boys to have.”
Tries and points have been flowing fast at both ends of the pitch, with the points columns, for and against, showing 200 to 198 in Harlequins’ favour this term.
“We’re getting there but defensively we’ve been off the boil, and conceding the amount of points we have been isn’t good enough,” Robshaw said. “That’s individually and collectively, we need to step that up.
“We’ve got a good squad and it’s vital to put it out there, every minute of the game, and not switching off.”
In addition to their 24-21 league win at Wasps in September, Harlequins can take heart from beating a French club away from home in each of their last four Champions Cup campaigns – Castres in 2014-15, and Racing Metro 92, Biarritz and Toulouse in the seasons before that.
So if it comes to needing victory in France in the return fixture with La Rochelle in January, there is course-and-distance form in the Quins stable.
“It’s not all over but we’ve got to make sure of a good result at Wasps because in this competition you can be out of it before it’s even started,” Robshaw said.
“You look after yourselves and hope other teams do you a favour, and hopefully come that sixth and last round, we’re in a good position to go there and throw everything at it.”
In the meantime the fast-starting La Rochelle now host Ulster this Sunday, and Robshaw was impressed by the solitary debutants among the Champions Cup’s 20 clubs.
“No one in our team had played them before,” he said, “but they finished first in the Top 14 last year and we knew the dangers they would pose.
“They have big, physical carriers who go round the breakdown a lot, and also that flair as they showed in the try when they turned us over and went the length of the pitch.
“Our scrum and set-piece are going well but we have just been a bit sloppy. We had opportunities that we didn’t convert.
“After two years away, we want to be in this competition, testing ourselves against the best teams and the best players. We fell slightly short but next week at Wasps is another day.”