Rugby Championship

Boks may have little left in tank

2016-09-19 13:38
Handre Pollard (Gallo Images)
Cape Town - The coach. His back-up staff. The administration. The captain. The game-plan. Selections.

Those are some of the inevitable areas of discontent being reeled off by Springbok supporters in the wake of a third successive Test defeat - a particularly depressing 41-13 one at the hands of the All Blacks in Christchurch on Saturday.

Elements of some of those are almost certainly applicable to the gloomy, horribly unstable situation the Boks currently find themselves in. Let’s not gloss over that.

But I believe another pretty major factor is being overlooked.

At a time when the rampant New Zealanders’ fitness is earning widespread laurels – they are often closing out games more clinically and powerfully than they start them - many of the Springbok players are quite feasibly going the other way in that regard.

In the vast majority of instances, I don’t believe laziness or lack of commitment to the national cause is to blame.

Much more relevant, by my book, is the contrasting workload management of the two teams, once the genuine “big two” on the planet until the Boks’ progressive, violent regression in the bilateral tussle, in particular, in recent years.

In short, the more dominant the All Blacks and NZ Super Rugby teams become, the more able they are to rest and rotate players appropriately on the punishing annual itinerary.

Taking players out of competition, of course, also provides an invaluable opportunity for proper strength and conditioning programmes which simply aren’t possible when they are preparing for rugby matches week after week and absorbing the inevitable knocks, bumps and more clear-cut injuries at the same time.

Given their depth of available talent, Steve Hansen and company in the All Blacks’ coaching panel confidently yank off players when they feel they have done enough game-time, allowing not only for better rest but also an alternative pool of players to strut their stuff in shorter bursts.

Hansen has reportedly already stated that, with the Rugby Championship in the bag two rounds from the finish, he will give opportunities to more peripheral players in the remaining assignments away to Argentina and the Boks. What an enviable luxury.

“You can’t keep playing the same athletes the whole time and expect to have that same zing,” he was quoted as saying … words that ring with uncomfortable salience here in South Africa.

Meanwhile in Super Rugby, it is not uncommon for top All Blacks to have generous “sabbaticals”, and/or sit out specific matches because the franchise in question confidently feel they will have the measure of certain opponents even at lesser strength.

With tons of seasoned South African professional players now plying their trades abroad, the remaining senior or most valued customers, by contrast, only assume extra importance and responsibility in local franchises that are generally weaker than we were all used to several years ago.

In other words, feet-up opportunities are fewer and further between than experienced by many NZ-based counterparts.

Then there’s the other huge – I strongly believe -- aggravating issue: Japan.

No lack of current Springbok players or contenders effectively sacrifice an off-season these days by taking up stints of a few months during the South African summer with Top League clubs in that distant country.

That method of accumulating foreign wealth, as the rand stays resolutely frail, is understandably considered a “good result” by SA Super Rugby teams and their supporters, as it means top stars may well stay contracted to them, as opposed to shifting lock, stock and barrel to European outfits.

But it also means that the next Super Rugby campaign begins with those players, duly back from Japan, hardly in prime shape either physically or mentally to start yet another annual slog.

So all you get is an ever-deepening, accumulating spiral of tiredness which can manifest itself in basic, elementary errors – notice any of those from the Boks during the latest Championship, anyone? -- or lethargy, even if minds and souls are not necessarily unwilling.

There is also a far greater risk of major injuries, either in Japan itself or early in the new SA season, as evidenced earlier in 2016 when attractive Bok options like Handre Pollard and Marcell Coetzee, both of whom played in Japan, suffered near-inevitable setbacks ruling them out for the entire remainder of the year.

Broadly speaking, the Boks have a much greater wave of absenteeism at this extended point of the 2016 season than the New Zealanders do, but that’s no special surprise; it’s an almost annual hallmark nowadays.

This isn’t intended as an excuse for present Bok woes and their painful retreat as rivals to the imperious All Blacks.

But the increasingly obvious imbalance in the freshness and conditioning stakes doesn’t help to close the gap, and it is extremely difficult to know quite what the solution is.

Are we going to suddenly see a new vim and vigour to the Boks in the embers of the Championship, and then on the obligatory end-of-year trek to colder climes?

I wouldn’t count on it.

No matter how much soul-searching over results and performances takes place, and how spiritedly marks are scribbled on a drawing board, there are at least some negative factors at play for the Springboks that simply cannot be eliminated.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

Read more on:    springboks  |  rugby championship  |  rugby
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