Boks think creatively about player welfare as they set out on road to RWC 2023

Boks think creatively about player welfare as they set out on road to RWC 2023
Springbok coach Jacques Nienhaber says they 'have to change, adapt and evolve' to win the World Cup. (Photo: Gordon Arons / Gallo Images)

The Springboks are having to think creatively around player conditioning to ensure the squad arrives in optimum form at Rugby World Cup 2023 in France.

South African rugby’s move north at club level will boost long-term economic benefits but in the short-term it’s created some planning challenges for the Springboks.

Andy Edwards, the Boks’ head of athletic performance, has been working in careful collaboration with the local franchises, overseas clubs and also with MyPlayers, the body that represents players’ interests.

After the continental shift for South African rugby, with inclusion of its top clubs in the United Rugby Championship (URC) and European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR), clearer player welfare guidelines were drafted.

The consultation resulted in a 32-game cap for players during the 2022/23 season, which required agreement from clubs to rest star players during the URC season. That’s currently happening.

The goal for Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber and Edwards is to arrive in France with a fully fit squad of 32 players and five or six reserves, close to peak fitness, to make an assault on the defence of the title they won four years ago.

Winning the World Cup is not only about tactics and skill, but about intense physical performance over seven games in the space of six weeks. The idea is to build and improve and to peak in every aspect in the last week. It’s fair to say that the Boks did that in Japan in 2019 with their stunning 32-12 win over England in the final.

But four years on, rugby’s landscape has altered. The actual sport has evolved slightly, and the world in which South Africa’s premier franchises operate is vastly different from what it was in 2019.

Read in Daily Maverick:Boks are comfortable with a favourites tag at RWC 2023 as fixtures finalised

Also, two Covid-affected seasons shifted timelines, changed priorities and affected the pace and planning of player and tactical development.

It’s all added up to a tweaked approach from what worked four years ago.

“When the shift happened with the South African franchises going into the northern hemisphere structure, we had to start looking at it a little bit differently,” Edwards said.

“The players have been on a long stretch now, if you go back to last season. They finished their URC season and went straight into camp for the Rugby Championship, and so on.

“It does become pretty relentless. There are lots and lots of positives about going north and playing in two different competitions, but it creates a problem in terms of the rest windows followed by the development windows.”

Not done on a whim

At this moment there are 14 Boks in a short alignment camp in Cape Town. The likes of Steven Kitshoff, Frans Malherbe, Kurt-Lee Arendse and Canan Moodie are in the camp. They have also been unavailable for their clubs due to the agreement until 10 March. 

While casual observers may view the sacrifices franchise coaches such as the Stormers’ John Dobson and Bulls’ Jake White are having to make in the Springbok interests, nothing was done on a whim.

“The biggest reason for this camp is that a lot of these players here at this camp haven’t had a break from rugby probably since before the British & Irish Lions series (in mid-2021),” Nienaber said.

“The majority… not all of them as some of them have had a development block after the URC… are guys who fit that mould.

“For future camps, we’ll sometimes have alignment camps on a Sunday with players from Japan. The alignment camps happen regularly. Every camp is there for a specific reason, we’ll invite a player for a specific reason to that camp.

“The biggest reason these players are in this camp is because of the lack of an off-season and trying to manage the northern hemisphere club competition and a southern hemisphere international competition.”

Edwards, who succeeded the successful Aled Walters as head of athletic performance in August 2020, has been central to the planning.

Edwards was head of strength and conditioning coach at Saracens when the club captured five English Premiership league crowns and three European titles in his successful 15-year stint at the club.

“The rest and then development that players would normally get off the back of a normal northern hemisphere cycle should happen in July and August,” he said.

“Obviously our guys don’t get it because we’re competing in the Rugby Championship at that time. So, essentially what we’ve done is taken that block and moved it to January and February while trying to not interrupt too much rugby that the franchises are playing.

“Currently, there are no EPCR games and it falls in line with the Six Nations window.

“There’s no factual evidence to say that athletes won’t still be able to perform if they didn’t have this break, but I think it’s unfair in terms of player welfare.

Read in Daily Maverick:Has coach Jacques Nienaber built a Springbok squad capable of winning the Rugby World Cup?

“It’s a really interesting time and I’m really glad we’ve got to this point and there are a lot of people behind it, from our side and with the franchises themselves buying into our vision.”

Nienaber said that the process to get to this point was planned a year ago.

“Using this camp as an example, as Bok management we had a plan to do it during the 2023 Six Nations,” Nienaber said.

“There are a lot of stages that you have to go through. That is the right way. We give our draft to a steering committee at Saru, to make sure that the plan talks to the marketing, commercial and financial departments so that everybody is aligned and speaks to everybody’s needs.

“Once the steering committee signs it off, it then goes to the Saru’s executive committee (exco). They then sign the plan off and we deliver it to MyPlayers and to the CEOs of the 14 provinces.

“Once they’re happy and sign it off it goes to the provincial coaches.”

‘Don’t be arrogant’

All the planning and even the experimenting last season that saw Nienaber make 18 changes between the first and second Tests against Wales to blood new players, is part of a culture of evolution.

Nienaber was criticised because that callow team lost 13-12 to Wales. While there is logic to experimentation there was a sense the Bok jersey was cheapened that day.

The fallout from that decision, as well as selecting the in-form Malcolm Marx on the bench for the clash against the All Blacks at Ellis Park, clearly still sting.

“Last year was an interesting year,” Nienaber said. “If you just go and bat for your own win percentage, you wouldn’t have made the changes in that second Wales Test, for example. Then a guy like Kurt-Lee Arendse would never have had the opportunity and Canan Moodie would never have come through.

“There were questions of why would you make 18 changes from one Test to another? Secure the series first. Although winning will always be our main strategic goal, development, creating squad depth and giving experience to players was massive last year.

“It came through at the back end of last season, we got some nice answers. The team is embracing the changes that we have made. We must make sure that from a leaders’ perspective, we must continue driving that creativity, otherwise things will catch up to us. There are certain creative things that we are trying to do.

“We mustn’t get arrogant and think that if we do the same things that we did in 2019, we will win the World Cup again. That’s arrogance. You have to change, adapt and evolve. Last year was big for us in terms of that.” DM


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