Cape Town – Perhaps with a deliberate hint of deception, rugby’s
powers that be describe the now traditional June internationals as a “Test
It suggests some sort of welcome breath of fresh air, when
really it is more like a suffocating plastic bag that only taxes already tired Super
Rugby limbs and lungs further.
Frankly, it is a farce that top southern hemisphere Test
teams begin a three-week period of internationals without even a week’s break
from the gruelling, ever-expanding franchise competition (the only consolation
is that visiting sides from north of the equator will also contain weary bodies
because the June Test itinerary comes so soon after completion of the entire
Almost inevitably, and no less damagingly, it has become a
hallmark of the switch-over to Test mode in early June that a volley of
uncompromising, often high-stakes conference derbies immediately precedes it.
Last year the Cheetahs – who at the time contained fewer
credible Springbok contenders than they do now – were the beneficiaries of a bye
ahead of England’s three-Test visit, with the other four SA teams not so lucky:
the Bulls hosted the Stormers and the Lions the Sharks just seven days out from
the first international.
This time the Sharks are the fortunate outfit sitting out
the pre-Test weekend, with the Stormers entertaining the Kings for the first
time at Newlands and a really “crunch” game taking place between the Cheetahs
and Bulls in Bloemfontein.
Don’t blame Bok coach Heyneke Meyer for possibly wincing at
the prospect of the latter game, especially, as two teams among the top four of
the overall Super Rugby log lock horns in a contest of huge importance in
The Bok squad for the
novel quadrangular also featuring Italy, Scotland and Samoa is named on
Saturday night, and Meyer will inevitably need to factor in the possibility that
his plans are quickly thrown into turmoil by a pulled hamstring or, worse,
someone’s anterior cruciate ligament being damaged during the keenly-awaited floodlit
It would be understandable, when you think a bit more deeply
about it, if Meyer were to slightly favour Sharks players in certain close-call
positional situations for the first assignment against the Italians at their
familiar terrain of Kings Park.
Some of them, after all, might be more attractive
propositions simply because they are a little fresher and hungrier for battle
in the green-and-gold following their gap week, whilst Cheetahs and Bulls stars
could be nursing undesirably recently-acquired bumps and bruises.
Into that mildly “revitalised” category would fall such
players as Pieter-Steph du Toit, Jannie du Plessis, Marcell Coetzee and Pat
Lambie, who have otherwise been heavily engaged for the injury-dogged franchise
during a tough period for them both physically and mentally in which the Sharks
have slipped well out of playoffs contention – all of them badly needed some
recharge time and it comes at a favourable time for their Bok aspirations.
The Sharks’ bye will perhaps have been slightly less
welcomed by customers like Beast Mtawarira and Willem Alberts, who had both
been absent for several weeks until recently and are rare cases of players needing
more, not less, game-time at present for purposes of gathering sharpness.
Loosehead prop Mtawarira, in particular, only made his
comeback against the Bulls last weekend, although he was commendably assertive
at scrum-time under the circumstances and may well have done enough to march
straight into the Bok No 1 jersey ahead of another appealing candidate like
Coenie Oosthuizen, whose front-row versatility and dynamic style of open play
will always make him a valued “impact” factor off the bench.
I can hear the cry already from elsewhere on the South
African landscape: “Hey, why should the struggling Sharks be rewarded with
plentiful Bok call-ups?”
But sober judges will also be well aware that the Durban
outfit still contains many known, Test-calibre individuals despite their woes as
a team in a spell of almost unheard-of injury absenteeism. (Nor am I saying
that the Bok side should, indeed, be noticeably skewed in favour of
representation by the Sharks.)
Meyer will certainly
not be able to ignore weight of nationwide Super Rugby exposure in the lead-up,
when he picks his first match-day squad for the challenge of the limited but
eternally tenacious Italians.
In that respect, he will be well aware that “burnout” danger
signals are flashing already for two of his blond bombers: captain Jean de
Villiers and potential pack-leader Adriaan Strauss.
Both the Stormers midfielder and the Cheetahs hooker have
been played to death, as it were, by their respective franchises simply because
they are such valuable elements of the mix either in Cape Town or Bloemfontein.
Strauss has been leading from the front in the Cheetahs’
unprecedented charge up the table, whilst De Villiers’s case has been slightly
different but no less pressured: he has been the glue that has held the
Stormers together – depth of proven options at centre has been a big snag --
during their most problematic season of the last four.
It was only partly with his tongue in his cheek last week
when he corrected a journalist who suggested he’d played every minute of every
match: “No, I did get three minutes off against the Brumbies!”
Expect Meyer, understandably, to want these two class acts very
central to his June assault quest, but what he may try to do – several fairly
hard-pressed Bulls players also come to mind here – is urge his troops to build
strong heads of early steam against the less-than-top-tier June foes, so that
he can safely pull off players in need of rest during the second half of
That way, he may also get a useful peep at the Test
credentials of one or two rookies as he trains his thoughts to the more
heavyweight needs of the Castle Rugby Championship further down the winter line
*Follow our chief
writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing