New Rugby Championship schedule will give Springboks a boost

New Rugby Championship schedule will give Springboks a boost
Springbok Bongi Mbonambi (second left) in action during the Rugby Championship match against the All Blacks at QCB Stadium on on the Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia, on 2 October 2021. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Dave Hunt)

Changes to a format that has favoured the All Blacks and Wallabies in the past will mean less travel time for the Boks.

Significant changes to the Rugby Championship schedule will decrease the amount of intercontinental travel — as well as the ensuing travel fatigue — and make for more competitive fixtures over the course of the tournament.

In the previous iteration of the Rugby Championship, the Springboks began their campaign with a home fixture against the Pumas, before embarking on tours of Argentina, Australia and New Zealand. By the time they’d returned to South Africa for fixtures against the Wallabies and All Blacks, the Boks had traversed about 30 time zones in the space of three weeks.

There are other reasons why the Boks failed to win a six-round Rugby Championship tournament over 10 years. But the debilitating effects of travel have certainly contributed to sub-standard performances and ultimately a disappointing win-loss record in this timeframe.

rugby championship springboks 2022

Argentina were subjected to similar travel demands before hosting the All Blacks and Wallabies at the back end of the tournament. New Zealand and Australia, however, reaped the benefits of a routine that allowed them to play the first four matches of their respective campaigns in Australasia.

The same Rugby Championship schedule was employed for all but one of the tournaments between 2012 and 2018. The competition was streamlined in 2015 and 2019 to accommodate the subsequent World Cup tournament.

The Boks didn’t feature in 2020 because of Covid-19 restrictions, and although the 2021 format was tweaked to take coronavirus concerns into account, four of the six rounds were staged in Australia.

A rigid and unequal schedule was in place for the better of a decade. From 2022 onwards, the Rugby Championship will embrace a new tournament format in an attempt to level the playing field.

The Boks will play double-headers against the All Blacks and Wallabies, before tackling Argentina home and away. The venues of the aforementioned two-match tours will rotate on an annual basis.

The Boks will host the All Blacks at Mbombela Stadium on 6 August and at Ellis Park on 13 August. Thereafter, they will travel to Australia to play the Wallabies in Adelaide on 27 August and on 3 September in Sydney.

In the next instalment of a six-round Rugby Championship — which is likely to be in 2024 as the 2023 championship will be truncated to accommodate preparations for the World Cup — the Boks will travel to New Zealand for two matches before hosting the Wallabies in a double-header.

At a glance, it appears a fairer arrangement, with all visiting teams exposed to similar travel demands. A closer look reveals that the Boks will have to overcome some logistical challenges later in this year’s tournament, when they play three consecutive overseas fixtures (two in Australia and one in Argentina).

For now, the Boks are in a strong position.

Much has been said about the team’s improved execution and intensity in the third Test against Wales. Much has been written about the All Blacks’ struggles in the recent series against Ireland, in which Ian Foster’s charges went down 2-1.

Both teams will be desperate to prove a point in the upcoming “mini-series”. The fact that these matches will be staged in South Africa — and that the All Blacks rather than the Boks will be forced to traverse the Indian Ocean — shouldn’t be taken for granted.

When Jacques Nienaber was appointed head coach in 2020, he spoke about taking the world champions forward and winning more big series and titles.

Although Covid-19 disrupted the Boks’ preparations, they still managed to beat the British & Irish Lions in a fiercely contested series staged in 2021. Later, they were highly competitive in the “mini-series” against the All Blacks — losing the first fixture and then winning the second. They fell short, though, in their quest to capture the Freedom Cup, the title that is contested by the archrivals annually.

Channelling the spirit of 2009

The Boks haven’t beaten the All Blacks twice in a season since 2009. Although the showpiece was a three-team affair in those days, South Africa were already subject to significant travel demands, playing three consecutive Tests in Australasia annually.

In 2009, the Boks had the benefit of starting the competition with two home fixtures against the All Blacks. John Smit’s men made the most of the home advantage, and those two wins set them up for a campaign that included five victories.

Could history repeat itself in 2022? Come the end of the tournament, will we have another scenario in which the SA Rugby trophy cabinet is home to the World Cup, a Lions series trophy, the Freedom Cup and a Rugby Championship/Tri-Nations title?

The Boks still have a lot to prove and the All Blacks — who have a good record in South Africa — should not be written off. The tour to Australia will be challenging for a Bok team that hasn’t won an away Test against the Wallabies since 2013.

But thanks to the changes to the format, the Boks will enjoy their best opportunity to succeed in more than a decade. If they make the most of their home fixtures against the All Blacks, and if they carry that form through to the fixtures in Australia and Argentina, they will surely end their Rugby Championship title drought.

In the process, they may reclaim World Rugby’s No 1 ranking and issue a big statement to Ireland and France ahead of the meetings in Dublin and Marseilles this November. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.


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