TIME TO PULL THE PLUG ON CUP
By Duncan Bech, PA Sport
Anyone serious about relieving the burden on over-worked players need only look to the Powergen Cup for inspiration on where to wield the axe.
Player burn-out is an issue which needs urgent attention and has several possible solutions, none more compelling than scrapping a cup competition which is struggling to find an identity in the modern game.
It has been left behind by the rise of the Heineken Cup where the cream of Europe battle out some ferocious contests, played in fantastic settings and before noisy crowds.
A day out at Twickenham used to be a special occasion but it has been devalued by the Guinness Premiership final's yearly appearance at HQ, further eroding a major selling point of the knockout cup.
Lawrence Dallaglio, who led Wasps to victory over Llanelli in last Sunday's final, this week gave an indication of just how far the prestige of the competition has sunk.
In a damning indictment from the winning captain, he said: "Although we won, it did feel a little bit of an anti-climax with a strange atmosphere."
Efforts have been made to give the Powergen Cup more appeal by handing the winners automatic entry into the Heineken Cup and this remains a strong selling point.
But the tournament needed another shot in the arm and that was provided this season when England's 12 Premiership clubs were joined by all four Welsh regions.
While attendance and viewing figures have been encouraging for the new format, the Powergen Cup remains the smallest draw and is the obvious choice to be removed.
Clubs will lament the revenues lost by its demise, and justifiably so given they receive Â£250,000 for taking part with a prize fund of up to Â£200,000 available for the semi-finalists.
Llanelli underlined the importance of the competition by stating the money they receive will fund their academy.
But the greater good of the game, and the welfare of those playing it, must surely come before Llanelli's academy.
Players are being flogged by a conveyor belt of matches which decrease their shelf-life, affects their form and places them at risk of serious injury.
With the collisions growing in intensity every season, the demands on players are becoming too high. Something must give as the human body is only designed to take so much punishment.
Axing the Powergen Cup would take four weekends out of the season, a month which could be dedicated to extending the players' summer R&R - giving them the down time they desperately need.
Withdrawing the fixtures would allow the regular season to start a month later in October, the most sensible way of shortening the campaign.
There are ways the shortfall in revenue could be addressed, boosting funds for both tiers of European competition.
Reports suggest the Heineken Cup is failing to maximise its earning potential by a substantial amount, while the Challenge Cup has been without a sponsor for two years.
Another possibility is to raise ticket prices. With Wasps regularly selling out their 10,000 capacity Causeway Stadium in the Premiership, it would take less than a Â£3 increase in the cost of a home ticket to make up the lost Â£250,000.
Price hikes are never popular with supporters but if the reasons behind the increases are clearly explained, fans may be willing to accept them.
Signing the Powergen Cup's death warrant would appear an obvious answer to player burn-out but with broadcaster BBC having signed up for another three years, it unfortunately looks here to stay.
News that Andy Farrell's season is a write-off is a further evidence his cross code switch has been one of the Rugby Football Union's most ill-conceived ideas yet.
Farrell has yet to play for Saracens since moving from Wigan rugby league club 12 months ago, and his hopes of appearing at the World Cup are in tatters.
The 30-year-old arrived in union having just recovered from a serious knee injury and it would take a miracle for him to build sufficiently on his token union experience to feature in England's Webb Ellis trophy defence.[/b]