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Player welfare is in the spotlight when rugby hemispheres collide

Player welfare is in the spotlight when rugby hemispheres collide
Duane Vermeulen of South Africa hands off Sam Whitelock of New Zealand (All Blacks) during the Rugby World Cup 2019 Pool B match. (Photo: Steve Haag / Gallo Images)

A gruelling club and international season means players get no time for rest and recuperation.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

South Africa’s top players have featured in local tournaments such as Super Rugby Unlocked, the Currie Cup and the Preparation Series since the game resumed in the country seven months ago.

The “new” season will begin in earnest this weekend, as the Rainbow Cup SA – a double-round tournament featuring the Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers – gets under way.

It was hoped that the top SA franchises would test the Irish, Italian, Scottish and Welsh waters this May and June before diving headlong into a new PRO16 competition later this year. Unfortunately, the Covid-19 situation and resultant travel restrictions have scuppered plans for a transcontinental Rainbow Cup. 

The Bulls celebrate during the Carling Currie Cup final match between Vodacom Bulls and Cell C Sharks at Loftus Versfeld Stadium on 30 January 2021 in Pretoria. (Photo: Lee Warren / Gallo Images)

A 12-month marathon begins

Nevertheless, this weekend does mark the start of a bumper season for South African rugby. At the conclusion of the Rainbow Cup in mid-June – which may yet include a final against the winner of the Rainbow Cup North competition in Europe – the top players will go straight into a Springbok camp, where they will prepare for a couple of friendly international matches and ultimately the marquee series against the British & Irish Lions.

Following the third and final Test against the Lions, they won’t have much time to rest before turning their attention to the Rugby Championship.

The traditional end-of-year will take place over November, with fixtures against Wales and Scotland already confirmed.

The inaugural PRO16 tournament will in all likelihood run from September to May. Reports in France suggest that the South African franchises might feature in the 2021-22 Champions Cup – the top-tier club competition in Europe, and arguably the most challenging regional tournament in top-flight rugby.

The four SA sides are more likely to qualify for the 2022-23 instalment, though. Whatever the case, the South African players are destined to play more, not less, in this unforgiving part of the rugby world. A world club championship is in the works, and will be rolled out in the next few years.

These are exciting times for SA Rugby. The Springboks are gearing up for a series against the Lions – a series that is staged once every 12 years and warrants grand comparisons to the quadrennial World Cup. The SA franchises are preparing for a pivot to the northern hemisphere that will eventually culminate in their participation in the Champions Cup. Although it’s yet to be confirmed, the Boks could join a revamped Six Nations tournament at a later stage.

And yet, many have asked where such a demanding schedule could leave the players. Former All Blacks centre Conrad Smith, who now sits on the International Rugby Players Council along with England captain Owen Farrell and Ireland skipper Johnny Sexton, believes that a fundamental restructure is needed sooner rather than later. 

Duane Vermeulen of the Springboks wins a lineout ball during the Rugby Championship match between the New Zealand All Blacks and the South Africa Springboks at Westpac Stadium in this file photo. (Photo: Hannah Peters / Gallo Images)

Players want a global season

“There was an opportunity to reorganise things and try and find that holy grail, to align the season [during the Covid-19 enforced lockdown],” Smith told The Times of London recently. “Everyone wanted to learn from the past and take the opportunity – our fear is that the opportunity is going to pass now. We are still not where we’d like to be.

“The problem is the conversations are still quite separate – the club and the international season. The players always ask, ‘How does this look in combination?’ There is a lot of lip service around player welfare but there isn’t a united view.

“Sexton and Farrell are part of our player council. What I am saying is directly from their mouths, particularly for the northern-hemisphere players, who really do battle with the convoluted season structure.”

Several prominent South African players have spoken out against the existing schedule, which is patently counter-productive.

Three years ago, Springbok flank Pieter-Steph du Toit boldly declared that he hoped for a minor injury over the course of a season, inferring that an enforced break would provide him with a decent opportunity to rejuvenate his body and mind.

Eben Etzebeth, the quintessential hard man of South African rugby, was just as adamant about the need for rest. The lock missed half of the 2018 Super Rugby tournament thanks to a serious shoulder problem, yet later admitted that the time away was a blessing in disguise.

Bear in mind that those comments were made in 2018. The demands on top players have only increased in subsequent years, and with more challenging fixtures against European opposition scheduled for later this season, top players will feature more and more in future.

Unless something changes, the window for rest and recuperation will remain inadequately small. As a consequence, we will see more serious injuries and shorter careers. 

Challenge of limited resources

The South African coaches recognise the unique challenge that this new season will present, although they might not have the resources to combat it. Stormers coach John Dobson as well as Sharks boss Sean Everitt have expressed their concerns regarding the relatively small 45-man player squads.

These squads will be weakened in the PRO16 when the Boks are on duty in the Rugby Championship and subsequently on the end-of-year tour to Europe. You wouldn’t blame the four franchise coaches for using their Boks as much as possible when those players are available at a later stage, but then that course of action could well put said players at risk. It’s a global issue that demands a global solution.

Last year, many felt that the Covid-19 enforced lockdown presented the powers that be with an opportunity to address the major issues in the game.

World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont and former vice-chairman Agustín Pichot both preached about the virtues of an aligned global season. Former Springbok captain Jean de Villiers, a long-time advocate for player welfare, pointed out how a global structure would end the club-versus-country tug-of-war and ensure that players are better managed and cared for. 

Following US approach to recovery

Gary Gold, who has coached at the highest level in South Africa, Europe and Japan, and is currently USA coach, said that an aligned solution was a no-brainer.

Dedicate a couple of months at the start of the global season to conditioning. Stage all domestic and regional tournaments in the next phase, and all the internationals in the phase that follows. Ensure that there is a period of inactivity thereafter, so that players have adequate time to rest.

Many sports scientists argue that the conditioning period at the start of the season and a recovery period at the end should not overlap. This is unfortunately the case in many countries, where recovery periods are often cut short.

Rugby claims to be a professional sport, but it fails to manage and ultimately maximise its biggest assets.

One only needs to look at the American codes to see how the superior management of players can lead to better performances, how better performances can lead to a better on-field product, and how a better product can boost profits. For all its bluster, rugby can only dream of emulating the NFL’s athletic and commercial success.

We’re bound to hear more gripes about clubs holding on to players until they are mandated to release them for international duty. The British & Irish Lions, of course, are currently fighting with English clubs over the release of star players ahead of the tour to South Africa.

We’re bound to hear more about mental and physical fatigue in the coming months, about players trudging on for club and country, and then breaking down as a result of fatigue. It’s an outcome that benefits no one – not the players, not the clubs and not the national side. It also hurts the product regardless of the tournament, as big matches are poorer for the absence of top players.

Significant structural changes are expected over the next 18 months, and stakeholders as well as fans should be excited about where the sport, particularly in South Africa, might go.

These changes will only pay dividends, and Test rugby as well as a revamped European Champions Cup will only flourish, if rugby’s powers see sense in aligning the hemispheres in a global season. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.

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