SA franchises play ball and rest players ahead of World Cup
Despite a seemingly never-ending season, the Boks should be in peak physical condition in France.
Eyebrows were raised when SA Rugby and MyPlayers set a 32-game cap for players based in South Africa ahead of the 2022/23 season.
The plan – which was formulated after consultations with various stakeholders and experts – was a good one. The potential pitfall, however, was SA Rugby’s reliance on individual franchises to rest star players at a crucial juncture of the United Rugby Championship (URC).
Yet here we are, eight months into the season, celebrating the fact that 14 contracted Boks – among other players – have been rested en masse. The franchises have held up their end of the bargain and shown their commitment to player welfare as well as the Boks’ World Cup ambitions.
South African rugby finds itself in a unique situation in that the Boks play Test rugby from July to November, whereas the franchises – which have been part of the northern hemisphere tournament structures since 2021 – compete from September to June.
As a result, elite players who represent club and country compete year round. They are more susceptible to physical and mental burnout than most based in other nations.
Until the northern and southern hemisphere seasons align, and until there is a designated off season in which the players can rest, South African rugby bosses will monitor the workload and enforce resting periods during the season proper.
Despite the awkwardness of the compromise, there’s reason to believe that the game cap, as well as the enforced break over February and March, may yield some success in the near future.
Proactive approach to pay off
MyPlayers CEO Eugene Henning told Daily Maverick that the franchises as well as the Springbok management team deserve credit for their contributions in recent months. The upshot is that the Boks should be in peak physical condition by the time they arrive at the World Cup in France later this year. The grind of the never-ending season won’t blunt the team’s edge.
“South Africa’s head of athletic performance, Andy Edwards, saw this challenge coming before anyone else,” Henning said.
“He was involved with Saracens for a long time, so he developed a deep understanding of the requirements for players across a northern hemisphere season.
“When South Africa’s franchises joined the URC in 2021, Andy came to us and spelled out the challenge in no uncertain terms. He was instrumental in guiding us to a solution, and we were fortunate that the franchise CEOs bought into the idea, too.”
Edwards worked with the strength and conditioning coaches at the franchises to ensure that the necessary strategies, targets and management systems were laid out. The CEOs accepted the need for a game cap, as well as eight weeks of mandatory rest during a 12-month period.
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“There was a great deal of collaboration, and without Andy’s guidance and the franchise CEOs’ positive attitude, we would have been in deep trouble,” Henning admitted.
“The Sharks – who were recently asked to rest nine players for that big game against the Stormers [which they lost 46-19] – deserve special mention here. Everybody has been very adult about the situation.”
Top Boks set to finish under game cap
Steven Kitshoff (21), Damian Willemse (21), Eben Etzebeth (19) and Siya Kolisi (19) are among the top players who have racked up the most games over the past eight months – but with the enforced rest period, there’s no chance of those players exceeding the game cap of 32, even if their franchises progress to both the Champions Cup and the URC finals.
A maximum of 12 games – the Sharks could play 14, as they still have a few postponed URC games to complete – will be staged between now and the end of the club season.
SA Rugby continues to monitor the game time of players of national interest representing teams in Europe and Japan – but has no control over how they are managed.
Last season, Jasper Wiese played a total of 38 games for Leicester and the Boks. The No 8 had no time to rest after helping the Tigers to win the English Premiership final, as he was called into the Bok camp a week later to play in South Africa’s Test season opener against Wales.
Malcolm Marx and Kwagga Smith have played 19 games since July. Both Boks are currently playing in Japan, though, where the club season is shorter – and arguably less taxing – than that of Europe. None of the World-Cup-winning Boks based in Japan are in danger of exceeding the 32-game cap.
The Europe-based Boks may also finish the club season relatively fresh – thanks to luck rather than planning. Cheslin Kolbe (Toulon) and Handré Pollard (Leicester) suffered serious injuries while on duty for the Boks in 2022 and were forced to miss a lot of rugby as a result. Both may actually benefit from an extended run at club level over the next few months.
Brutal Test schedule
There’s a bigger picture, though, with the World Cup looming.
Once the current rest period for players based in South Africa has elapsed in late March, the intensity will increase as the club tournaments enter the knockout phase. The Boks will have the opportunity to condition and prepare with the national side in June, before launching headlong into a brutal Test schedule.
The fixture list for the 2023 calendar year was recently confirmed. The Boks will play 10 Tests in 13 weeks from the start of July to the beginning of October.
After that, they could play three Tests in as many weeks – provided that they progress through the World Cup playoffs and qualify for the final on 28 October.
To summarise, a potential run of 13 Tests in 16 weeks will begin shortly after a 12-month South African season marathon concludes.
Perhaps the steps taken by SA Rugby and MyPlayers will be enough to ensure that the Boks peak at the World Cup in France later in the year.
A more permanent move that aligns the hemispheres in one global season – such as shifting the Rugby Championship to February and March, when the Six Nations is also played – will better serve the wellbeing of the players and indeed the integrity of the sport. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.