All Blacks have clear advantage if 2020 Rugby Championship takes place – Nienaber

All Blacks have clear advantage if 2020 Rugby Championship takes place – Nienaber
Head coach Jacques Nienaber with Rassie Erasmus, during the Springbok press conference at Southern Sun Pretoria on January 24, 2020 in Pretoria, South Africa. (Photo by Johan Rynners/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

New Zealand is set to host a truncated version of the Rugby Championship in November and December this year. It will give the All Blacks home ground advantage on top of the fact that they have been playing a domestic Super Rugby tournament for the past month.

Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber will just be happy to see the current world champions and defending Rugby Championship winners play some Tests this year. But he knows the odds will be stacked against South Africa if the Rugby Championship goes ahead in New Zealand later this year, because his team will be months behind the All Blacks in terms of preparation.

On Thursday, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina Rugby (Sanzaar) confirmed that New Zealand could host all four teams in a controlled environment to contest the Rugby Championship in November and December.

“Having successfully restarted Super Rugby this year in Australia and New Zealand, our focus is now on The Rugby Championship (TRC) that is set to be played in one central location,” Sanzaar chief executive Andy Marinos said.

“We have determined that New Zealand is currently the favoured option, given the Covid-19 stability within the region. Critical to this, however, is alignment with the New Zealand government around its requirements for this to take place. 

“Sanzaar is well advanced in option planning with New Zealand Rugby, which, in turn, is now seeking New Zealand government approval. It is hoped that details on the TRC will be announced in the near future.”

Boks will be underdone

Currently, Nienaber should ideally have overseen his first two Tests by this stage of the year. The first phase of the 2020 international season should almost be done, and TRC should be coming into focus as the main priority for the world champions.

Instead, it has been home gyms and online meetings for the coach without a team. Nienaber was elevated to the head coach position earlier this year after Rassie Erasmus opted to concentrate on his role as director of rugby after successfully guiding the Boks to the 2019 World Cup title.

It’s been a frustrating time for the ebullient Nienaber, who is a coach that loves nothing more than rolling up his sleeves and working on the training ground to make better players and teams.

“We have a return-to-play policy where we will hopefully have about six games before we go into international competition,” Nienaber told Daily Maverick on the Maverick Sports Podcast this week. “It will give me a chance to look at players’ form and performances, but everything is still up in the air at the moment.

“The last games our players were involved in was back in March, and there has been a lot of change in the world since then.

“New Zealand will definitely have the advantage and if we don’t start returning to training and playing soon, they will be almost three months ahead of us. Resting does have its advantages, but no player has become better by not working on their game.

“It’s one thing to freshen up a body, which is necessary, but it’s another thing to stay on top of your game, develop your skills and become stronger and fitter if you are sitting around. New Zealand players are getting better because of the competition they have at the moment.”

New Zealand players have been in action for a month in their domestic Super Rugby Aotearoa, which has produced some spectacular games with brilliant individual performances. In a normal world, the All Blacks don’t need an advantage, but in 2020 they will be well ahead of the rest – especially the Springboks and Pumas from Argentina.

“Obviously the situation is not ideal, purely because we had everything planned out for a four-year cycle in terms of our strategic goals,” Nienaber said. “Those goals will stay the same but the method of how we get there has to change. We will have to adapt on the run to reach those goals.

“We have plans in place for all sorts of scenarios. So, if we started playing again tomorrow, this is what we would do, but if it’s in a month’s time, we have another plan, and another plan if we only return to play at a later date. 

“We have done our scenario planning, but in reality our final plan will be some sort of hybrid of these ideas because we don’t know how everything will work out. There are so many unknown factors.

“You can have all the scenarios worked out in your head but I suspect that, ultimately, we are going to have to meet challenges on the run.” 

Rugby Championship vital for SARU’s commercial future

SA Rugby has budgeted to save R1.2-billion through an industry  collective bargaining agreement if there is no rugby played in 2020, but that is a worst case scenario.

The idea that the Rugby Championship could take place this year is a huge boost for the commercial side of the game, although there are many variables that could still scupper Sanzaar’s best intentions.

“We are fully supportive of the idea of playing the Rugby Championships in New Zealand later this year,” SA Rugby chief executive Jurie Roux told Daily Maverick on Thursday.

“Sanzaar is working hard with the New Zealand government to manage the logistical requirements to ensure the wellbeing of players and the host nation’s citizens, and we are keen to see a successful resolution.

“I’m sure it would give all South Africans a lift to see the Springboks run out for the first time with the mantle of World Champions on their shoulders, and as defending champions of the Championship, in front of what we would hope would be packed stadiums.

“It is also commercially important for our sport to be able to deliver games for our broadcast partner SuperSport and our sponsors who have bravely stood beside us in these unprecedented times.

“It is critical for our teams to have training and game time in preparation for the mooted series, but our stance is that we will move heaven and earth in order to take part in the Series.”

South African rugby players are hoping to return to training on Monday, but final government clearance is needed. DM


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