Sport

LOFTUS KICK-OFF

Rugby back on SA fields next week

Rugby back on SA fields next week
Springbok captain Siya Kolisi. (Photo: EPA / Mark R Cristino)

The Springboks’ hopes of being competitive in the scheduled Rugby Championships later this year were boosted after SA Rugby on Wednesday announced the return of competitions.

After nearly six months of suspension due to the coronavirus pandemic, which forced the cancellation of Super Rugby and part of the international season, local rugby will return next week. 

The domestic season will resume on 26 September with a double-header at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria. The Bulls meet the Sharks and the Lions face off against the Stormers in friendly matches called “Super Fan Saturday”. 

The idea is to give players some match contact before a Springbok “trial” takes place at Newlands on 3 October. That match, which has been dubbed the “Springbok Showdown”, will pit the best locally-based players and top, up-and-coming talent against one another as rugby enters a new four-month competition. 

Springbok assistant coaches Mzwandile Stick and Deon Davids will coach Springbok Green versus Gold teams for the match at Newlands, with Rassie Erasmus (director of rugby) and Jacques Nienaber (Springbok coach) acting as the two team commissioners. 

The selection process will take the form of a draft pick from an enlarged squad of 60 players with Green and Gold team bosses taking alternate turns in an old-style “schoolyard pick” to assemble their matchday squads of 25 players each. 

“This will not only be an opportunity to see the best of the best available in South Africa square off against each other in what promises to be something never seen before, but it will also provide the players with another valuable opportunity to shake off the rust and get the legs and lungs going after not playing any rugby in the last six months,” Erasmus said in reference to the trial match. 

“The players will be encouraged to showcase their skills – individually and in their teams – and while it will be full-on, we’re expecting to see a highly competitive match of quality players against each other. 

“It will be exciting – from the moment we select the squads, with a number of twists thrown in for good measure – through the build-up to the match and the actual encounter in Cape Town.” 

Rugby Championship participation still undecided 

While the trial match is as much about marketing as it is about rugby, the concept is a way for Nienaber to have an early look at the form of some key players with an eye to the Rugby Championship later this year. 

With travel restrictions easing, the chances of the Boks playing in the southern hemisphere’s premier tournament look a lot brighter than they did a week ago. The resumption of local competition is another vital aspect of the overall plan of putting the world champions on the field in some sort of good form. 

But that is set against some serious considerations about player welfare and reputational damage. There is little to be gained by an unprepared  Springbok team taking on purring All Black and Wallaby teams. Players could be seriously injured and the reputational and brand damage the Springboks could suffer if they are thrashed would far outweigh the consequences of declining to play. 

At the moment the only lure for the Boks to play in the Rugby Championship is that SA rugby would earn about R300-million in broadcast rights fees. Given rugby’s bleak financial situation due to Covid-19 lockdowns, it’s tempting to only focus on the money, but that is a very short-term view. 

SA Rugby has budgeted to cut R1.2-billion through an industry collective bargaining agreement if there is no rugby played in 2020. That is a bleak outlook, but SA Rugby is willing to grit it out rather than damage its flagship brand.

The hard-earned legacy and reputation the Boks gained, not only for winning Rugby World Cup 2019, but doing it in such fine style under an iconic captain in Siya Kolisi and superstar coach Erasmus, could be quickly damaged. That cost has to be weighed up against the broadcast fees. 

New Zealand and Australia are months ahead of South Africa in their preparation and have both played local versions of Super Rugby. South Africa’s leading locally-based players will play a maximum of five games before they would need to travel to Australia to enter a two-week quarantine period. It’s a fine balancing act. 

“We’re still not in a position to confirm plans for the Springboks, but it remains our wish that they play Tests this year,” SA Rugby chief executive Jurie Roux said. 

“It would not only be great to see the Rugby World Cup champions in action, but it would also give the Bok management valuable preparation for next year’s tour of the British & Irish Lions.” 

Domestic competition 

But the announcement that rugby was returning was a positive boost for the sport, which at the very least will have a 15-week domestic competition that will recoup some losses. 

A double-round local competition, between seven franchises, kicks off on the weekend of 10 October. Details of the local competition, with each of the teams facing the others home and away and every side enjoying two byes during the competition, will be released once all the details have been finalised. There is still clarity needed on sponsors and participating teams. 

In what is another first for South African rugby, the local competition will continue over Christmas and New Year and will culminate in semi-finals (16 January) and a final on 23 January next year. 

“This is a very exciting plan for the next few months, considering all the challenges we’ve faced this year due to the Covid-19 pandemic and it will be great to see our best local rugby heroes battle it out from October to January,” said Roux. 

“We’ve worked very hard with a national government, [broadcaster] SuperSport, our various sponsors and the franchises to get to this point and it’s great to know we can now look forward to brilliant provincial rugby being played in the next couple of months. 

“Unfortunately, spectators won’t be allowed inside the stadiums as we are still working with certain Covid-19 regulations.” DM

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