Cape Town – There’s a welcome bit of catch-up in rest and
recuperation going on ... to the benefit of the Springboks’ prospects in what
could be a particularly tight, enthralling 2014 Castle Rugby Championship.
On Saturday, no small tally of pivotal Wallabies and All
Blacks will go at each other hammer and tongs in the Super Rugby final between
the Waratahs and Crusaders in Sydney (11:40 SA time).
The cream of South Africa’s players will have their feet up
for a change – no doubt revelling in every big hit from the comfort of their TV
rooms -- and that’s no bad thing on a day that will also mark a fortnight to
the start of the Championship.
It is a situation that is unfortunate on the one hand in
indicating this country’s shortcomings in the premier southern hemisphere
franchise competition this year ... but the unceremonious exit at the
semi-final stage of last SA survivors the Sharks certainly aids Bok coach
Heyneke Meyer’s preparations.
Several players – particularly some staple forwards -- from
the Durban-based outfit have been victims of absurd over-use in the first half
of the year, so players like Bismarck and Jannie du Plessis and Willem Alberts
getting three rare off weeks on the trot is manna from heaven in national
Given the under-performance of domestic Super Rugby teams
like the Stormers, Bulls and Cheetahs this season, Test players from those
sides have had an even longer hiatus from the weekly grind: by the time the
Championship opener comes around against Argentina at Loftus on August 16 they
will have had five weeks of refreshment, considering the trio’s complete
absence from the finals series phase.
Again, this has brought unintended blessings -- generally
speaking, the Bok cause is more hampered than that of either Australasian
superpower by this stage of the rugby year on the southern side of the Equator.
Although this is self-orchestrated, the peculiarly
bone-jarring nature of SA derbies in Super Rugby does more harm than good to
Springbok squad health, the travel factor is always more detrimental and
fatiguing to SA sides, and the lack of meaningful, central contracting of
blue-chip Boks means that things like rejuvenating sabbaticals – a feature of
the New Zealand landscape – simply don’t exist.
Further helping Bok players to gradually overcome both
mental and physical tiredness is the fact that traditionally the Rugby
Championship is rather more humanely structured than the ill-branded June “Test
window” which is simply sandwiched crudely between Super Rugby rounds without
so much as a week’s breathing space at either end.
The Championship most often starts a fortnight, by contrast,
after the Super Rugby final – from which plenty of international stars will
obviously be absentees anyway – and then includes the relative luxury of two
bye weekends for all four contestants in mid-tournament.
This year’s itinerary also works quite favourably from a Bok
point of view, because likely weakest link Argentina at home is an occasion
where the Boks should be able to recapture their rhythm gradually even if it is
slightly ropey at the outset.
Bear in mind that in 2013, South Africa slaughtered the
Pumas 73-13 in Johannesburg, and there are no special reasons to assume the
Argentineans will be markedly stronger this year (they should be no pushovers,
as usual, in their own habitat a week later).
Just 20 early minutes of poor fluidity or a catalogue of
errors could be fatal against say, the defending champions from New Zealand if
they were first up for the Boks, but against these opponents the risk is
probably less acute.
Still, Meyer faces a strange balancing act, because as much
as the key priority will undoubtedly be ensuring that his frontline players who
have had too much game-time in recent months are suitably reinvigorated, he
will be mindful of the possibility of some actually having gathered some rust
The coach also faces a dilemma over how to manage the
handful of players at his disposal who will definitely be shy of game-time at
the outset of the Championship, after long-term or reasonably long-term injury.
In that category will be such personalities as his
first-choice captain Jean de Villiers, Eben Etzebeth (no rugby at all thus far
in 2014) and young back-up tighthead prop Frans Malherbe who has at last
reportedly overcome a concussion.
Naturally, Western Province head coach Allister Coetzee has
eagerly suggested some of these players earn a bit of comeback time in his
Currie Cup ranks before being filtered back into the hurly-burly of the
Whether that comes to fruition remains to be seen, but
whatever happens, the likes of De Villiers and Etzebeth, among Meyer’s most
trusted personnel since his installation to the Bok role, could well be named
in his extended squad on Saturday (around 14:00) anyway ...
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