Johannesburg - The abiding memory of the Springboks’ loss to Wales – their third in succession on their tour of Europe, which followed their first defeat to Italy the week before – was how they were strolling from set phase to set phase, despite being behind.
As the feigned injuries and excessive double-knotting of shoelaces drove the Welsh commentators up the wall, because they could see delay tactics by a team that couldn’t live with the game’s pace, South African rugby’s greatest weakness, shoddy conditioning, was laid bare.
It’s an issue that has been discussed since 2014, when Heyneke Meyer was coach, and is a topic that is now up for further dissection at the conditioning indaba on Wednesday.
Mark Steele, who was the Boks’ conditioning coach when they won the 2007 Rugby World Cup, has not received a formal invitation to the gathering, despite having sent off two unanswered emails during the season to Bok coach Allister Coetzee to outline his concerns about conditioning.
It’s a pity because when Steele, who now heads his own conditioning company, was one of the last trainers in charge, there were no questions about the Boks’ fitness.
We all used to laugh at Jake White’s bench press and vertical-jump demands, but that is what sustained a team that sometimes won games on 30% possession, meaning the strength of their durability showed through their defending for 70% of the time.
“One of the things we did [with the Boks] was to set standards for the group of players we selected,” Steele explained. “It’s important to have checks and balances.”
Steele said the main problem with the Boks’ conditioning was the intensity at which they trained.
“Conditioning is important so that you can operate at 95% intensity at training, so you can do the same in a match.
“If you’re jogging and passing at 60%, you can catch and pass. But you’re not put under pressure, intensity wise, to be able to execute your skills at 95% intensity in a match.
“If you’re able to train at a higher intensity, it translates into being able to learn skills at a higher intensity.”
Steele said that when the Boks resolved to work harder, they made the mistake of thinking they needed to train longer and harder: “That’s when overtraining happens. The cumulative effect of that is the catabolic effect, where the team becomes deconditioned and loses their strength and power.
“That’s when the skills level drops because they can’t train at 90% to 95% intensity and skills and conditioning go hand in hand. The Wales game was a great example of that.”
He said the only way South Africa could mimic the New Zealand way, was if SA Rugby and the franchises had an integrated system.
“It’s incredible how well defined and specific their [New Zealand’s] programmes are. They produce athletes that can put out performance on demand.”
He said an integrated vision between SA Rugby and its six Super Rugby franchises was a non-negotiable.
“Four years ago, I said to Heyneke Meyer that SA Rugby needs to have someone who goes to the unions to say the game is moving in a certain way, and we need to follow certain routines to keep up. There hasn’t been a constructive thought about how we’re going to address where the game is going at national level.
“The whole point to conditioning is to get faster athletes running at faster speeds for longer. We need a system where we say these are the 10 most important exercises for our players and the franchises to do so that everyone is on the same page.