Never-ending rugby season is the biggest threat to player welfare

Never-ending rugby season is the biggest threat to player welfare
Damian Willemse of the Stormers during the United Rugby Championship final match between DHL Stormers and Vodacom Bulls at DHL Stadium on June 18, 2022 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo by Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images)

Where is South African rugby right now in terms of its season and scheduling? It’s a question that very few stop to consider, even though the number of competitive games – as well as the incessant calls for improved player management and welfare – increase with each passing calendar year.

South African rugby continues to straddle two hemispheres, and thus two rugby seasons. The demands on the players will only increase in the coming months, and in the lead-up to the 2023 World Cup. Something’s gotta give.

Other nations have voiced their concerns about the number of games at club and international level, and have called for a more streamlined approach to the scheduling. 

This past week, the concussion campaign group Progressive Rugby – which comprises a number of medical experts and former Test players – sent World Rugby a list of recommendations that could improve player welfare and reduce the risk of serious injuries. 

The group has called for the establishment of a global calendar, a change to the tackle laws, and a reduction in the number of games (25) to be played over the course of a season. 

South African rugby, however, is in a unique situation.

From famine to feast after Covid

South Africa’s best players have enjoyed few opportunities to rest over the past two years. When the Covid-19 restrictions were lifted in September 2020, the players bounced from one tournament to another in an attempt to regain form and fitness. 

Super Rugby Unlocked was succeeded by the Currie Cup and yet another domestic competition dubbed “the Preparation Series”. The inter-hemisphere Rainbow Cup was followed by the British & Irish Lions tour, which was followed a week later by the Rugby Championship.

The end of that Sanzaar tournament overlapped with the start of the inaugural United Rugby Championship. The Springboks had a brief break before going into a preparation camp ahead of a three-Test tour of the United Kingdom. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: “Southern Hemisphere rugby plays a dangerous game with 20-minute red card trial

Thereafter, South Africa’s elite players were given an opportunity to rest, before being drafted back into their URC sides. Some of the players based at clubs in England and France, however, did not enjoy a lengthy reprieve. 

The URC culminated with the Stormers beating the Bulls in the final on 18 June. Thereafter, the Stormers and Bulls players joined their Bok teammates in camp to prepare for a three-Test series against Wales. 

Pieter-Steph du Toit of the Springboks tackles Liam Williams of Wales during the 2nd Castle Lager Incoming Series test match between South Africa and Wales at Toyota Stadium on July 09, 2022 in Bloemfontein, South Africa. (Photo: Gordon Arons/Gallo Images)

The Boks had two weeks to rest, as well as prepare, ahead of the start of the Rugby Championship – and ultimately a double-header against their greatest foes, the All Blacks.

It’s a gruelling schedule, and one wonders how a tiring group of players might navigate the challenges of the Rugby Championship – easily the world’s most demanding annual international tournament, given the quality of the teams involved and the extent of the travel. 

It’s important to note that the Bok players have played more rugby – and enjoyed far less rest – than their Australasian counterparts. The latter follow a more traditional southern-hemisphere season (February to November), with a defined split between club and international rugby.

2022/23 Champions Cup to increase the workload

The bad news is that the next 12 months will demand even more of these South African players. 

After competing in a Rugby Championship that is effectively staged in the European/South African off-season, the Boks will dive headlong into a schedule that includes 18 URC league matches, at least four Champions Cup matches, and a minimum of eight Tests before the World Cup in France.

Read more in Daily Maverick: “Former rugby players to take legal action over long-term effects of concussion

To be clear, this is what South African rugby wanted – its best players performing in the URC and pushing for a seat at the big table in Europe. 

The Bulls, Sharks and Stormers recently qualified for the 2022/23 Champions Cup, while the Lions and Cheetahs were granted a place in the second-tier Challenge Cup competition. There is a massive opportunity for these franchises to grow, and for all parties – including the Boks – to realise their player development and commercial goals. 

Yaw Penxe of the Sharks tries to evade Duane Vermeulen of the Bulls during the Carling Currie Cup final at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria on 30 January 2021. (Photo: Christiaan Kotze / Gallo Images)

And yet, it’s plain to see why the present schedule – effectively a never-ending season – will compromise those goals. Something – be it a set of matches or an international tournament – will need to be sacrificed at the altar of player welfare sooner rather than later. 

Top South African players based in Europe – such as Cheslin Kolbe, Handré Pollard and Jasper Wiese – have been subjected to this type of schedule for some time. A team that progresses to the final of the French Top 14 will have played 29 games in that competition, while a club that qualifies for the English Premiership decider will have played 26. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: “Player welfare is in the spotlight when rugby hemispheres collide

A minimum of four Champions Cup or Challenge Cup fixtures – and a maximum of eight, should a team progress to the final – add to the workload over the course of a northern-hemisphere season.

It’s highly unlikely that a top player will compete across all domestic and European matches. Some will break down with injuries, while others will join national teams during the World Rugby-sanctioned international windows and miss a few club fixtures. 

That said, you have to feel for the players who do compete in the bulk of these club games and go on to play 12 to 14 Tests for the Boks in the ensuing months.

South African franchises and European clubs will be exposed to a similar workload in the coming season. It will be interesting to see how the respective coaches address the player management issues, as all and sundry will be under pressure to field their best combinations and to produce results.

Club versus country

The period between October and December may prove especially challenging. As was the case last year, the South African teams will begin their respective URC campaigns without a host of top players – who will be called up to represent the Springboks and South African A teams on the end-of-year tour to Europe. That tour includes important Test fixtures against Ireland – the No 1-ranked side in the world – and France – the Six Nations champions.

Will those players receive a decent break once they return from international duty? It would be a tough ask for the franchise coaches to rest their Boks during the initial rounds of the Champions Cup in early December. 

Will they be rested in January and February? Well, after competing without their Bok players in the initial rounds of the URC, the franchises might find themselves in an unfavourable position on the tournament log, and in dire need of a boost. 

Unlike the previous Super Rugby tournament, which was ring-fenced for much of its history, there is promotion and relegation across the top European competitions. If the South Africa teams don’t perform in the URC and finish the league stage among the top seven sides, they will not qualify for the next edition of the Champions Cup. 

There’s been some healthy communication between the Bok coaches and their franchise counterparts over the past few years, and on many occasions, both parties have made decisions with good player management in mind. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: “Boks gun for best of both worlds in calendar reshuffle

Going forward, however, the franchises will need greater access to their best players if they want to remain competitive in both the URC and the Champions Cup. At the same time, the Boks coaches will need access to the top players in order to plan for the World Cup in France.

Malcolm Marx of the Springboks reacts after losing the Rugby Championship Round 5 match between New Zealand’s All Blacks and South Africa’s Springboks at Queensland Country Bank Stadium in Townsville, Queensland, Australia, 25 September 2021. EPA-EFE/DARREN ENGLAND AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND OUT

‘But when will we rest?’

Players have been speaking out against the unforgiving schedule for a number of years. 

While playing for the Stormers in the previous version of the Super Rugby tournament, Bok flanker Pieter-Steph du Toit once admitted that minor injuries – and the resultant two-to-three week layoffs – gave elite players a much-needed opportunity to physically and mentally reset. 

Other players echoed those sentiments, and called for a revision of the season structures and ultimately a greater focus on player welfare. 

Unfortunately, the situation has not improved since the days of the old Super Rugby tournament. 

When the Bulls, Sharks and Stormers qualified for the 2022/23 Champions Cup, and the demands of the next 12 months were spelled out in no uncertain terms, one senior Bok half-asked, half-stated to Daily Maverick: “But when will we get a chance to rest?”

Last month, Bok enforcer Eben Etzebeth told this publication that a change to the season structure needs to be made sooner rather than later. 

Etzebeth represented French side Toulon for three seasons. He will link up with the Sharks, and feature in the URC and Champions Cup, later this year. If fit, he will travel to the 2023 World Cup as one of the Boks’ key players. 

“Player welfare and the season structure – it’s something that they have to address,” Etzebeth said. “I realise that there’s no simple answer. 

“They have to find a way to ensure that the Test teams and the clubs get the best out of the players, and that player welfare is taken into account. Whatever they decide, I just hope that Test matches remain the big thing. Nothing beats a Test for your country.”

While Etzebeth is right in stating that the Test game is the pinnacle, one wonders whether South African rugby can continue to field franchise teams in Europe as well as the Bok side in the Rugby Championship. 

Perhaps a new global season structure that allows for the Rugby Championship to be staged in the same Test window as the Six Nations is the answer. That may force SA Rugby to choose between the two tournaments – and abandon existing plans to join the Six Nations. 

That would ensure that the Boks continue to play the All Blacks on an annual basis and – most importantly – that the players enjoy an off-season in August as well as a full pre-season programme in September.

Sadly, we’re unlikely to see changes in the near future. South Africa’s franchises will be stretched for player resources in the coming months, and the amount of rugby played by the top sides in Europe may take its toll on national players in the lead-up to the 2023 World Cup. DM


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