‘I’ve played with players who can’t even cut their dinner anymore’: Former England star Freddie Burns gives a grim warning on rugby’s physical toll
- Freddie Burns is enjoying a quieter life on the pitch with Combe Down RFC
- The former Bath No 10 is waiting for his visa to arrive before he moves to Japan
- Off the pitch, he has always spoken his mind and he fears for rugby’s physical toll
While his former Premiership team-mates are playing more games than ever before, Freddie Burns is enjoying a quieter life on the pitch with Combe Down RFC.
They play in the Dorset & Wiltshire North league and training is limited to two nights per week, before supper.
It is a far cry from the demanding surroundings of professional rugby but one thing is certain: Burns’s body feels better than ever. The former Bath No 10 is waiting for his visa to arrive before he moves to Japan, and the time out has allowed him plenty of time to reflect.
Former Bath No 10 Freddie Burns is enjoying a quieter life on the pitch with Combe Down RFC
He is waiting for his visa to arrive before he moves to Japan and he has been reflecting
‘I feel refreshed,’ says Burns. ‘I’ve loved coming up to Combe Down on a Tuesday and Thursday evening. It’s my old man’s team. You’ve got boys who work all day, come up to train and have a laugh. I feel like one of the lads and I’m just trying not to be that t**t who’s a professional!
‘English rugby is one hell of a product but from a player welfare point of view, it’s attritional. You’re playing more and more games and you’re smashing each other up in training. It’s a tough old industry to be in.’
Burns has never been shy of expressing himself. On the pitch, coaches have tried to rein in his adventurous skill-set. Off the pitch, he has always spoken his mind and, in the current climate of midweek fixtures and pay cuts, he fears for rugby’s physical toll.
‘If we’re not careful, rugby’s going to become a three-year career,’ says Burns. ‘Year on year, it becomes more physical and more attritional. The number of games being played is huge. Money talks at the end of the day and Premiership Rugby, the money men, decided on this schedule.
‘Compromise needed to happen during Covid but it seems like the only ones making that compromise are the players. They’ve been told, “I’ll tell you what, we’re going to pay you less money to play more games”. They’re putting their body through more and more strain. I’ve played with players who can’t even cut their dinner because they’ve got nerve damage in their arm. I watched Bath versus Wasps last week and Wasps had four players injured in the first half an hour. The player welfare side of thing needs to be looked at. Do I think that’s happening? Not really.’
Burns has always spoken his mind off the pitch and he said he fears for rugby’s physical toll
English rugby’s crash-and-bang style does not help with the injury toll. Teams focus on dominating collisions and playing through structures. Burns, however, is buoyed by the heads-up style of Wasps rookie Jacob Umaga. The young No 10 has helped steer Wasps to the top four, with an expansive style that Burns feels is too often lacking in the domestic game.
‘You’ve got to think outside the box and that’s what English rugby lacks a little bit,’ says Burns.
‘You’ve got to keep creating in this game. Exeter are very good at battering the door down. They can do it because they have the players and they’ve spent years perfecting it. How often do you see guys like Anthony Watson and Olly Woodburn given the space to play?
‘You’ve got to find your own identity. Jacob Umaga has been playing very well with Dan Robson. Is he England standard? It’s hard to say because the integrity of the league has gone a bit with the current scheduling. He might be a little bit green but he is definitely showing that X-factor to get his team going.’
Burns believes rugby’s lower tiers provide part of the key to unlocking the sport’s potential. He wants to see the second-division Championship restructured to help develop the depth of talent.
‘For me, the problem with English rugby is the Championship,’ he says. ‘It should be more competitive. I love the drama of relegation but maybe ring-fencing the league and linking each Premiership team with a Championship team could make a difference.
‘If you have a good year in the Championship, you get snapped up by a Premiership team and spend the year holding bags. In many ways, the Championship is the third tier because the second-tier players are holding bags in the Premiership. Evening out that level of competitiveness has to be part of the process. I feel for the people making the decisions.’
Freddie Burns is an ambassador for the DFY Foundation which uses sport to make a positive impact in the community.
It is a non-profit organisation aiming to inspire kids from disadvantaged backgrounds to achieve their full potential through mentorship from the likes of Burns, Joe Cokanasiga, Jacob Umaga and Elliot Stooke.
The foundation is the brain child of International Sports Consulting, who represents all those players. ‘We want to have an influence on kids before it’s too late,’ said Burns. By investing a bit of our time in them, hopefully it will help them finding decent jobs later in life, whether that’s a rugby player or an office worker.’ Visit www.dfy.org.uk or donate on https://natwestbackerbusiness.co.uk/dfy/