Pressure for Springbok players as franchises seek their momentum

Pressure for Springbok players as franchises seek their momentum
Captain Siya Kolisi of South Africa lifts the Webb Ellis Cup with teammates following the Rugby World Cup France 2023 match between New Zealand and South Africa at Stade de France on 28 October 2023 in Paris, France. (Photo: Xavier Laine / Getty Images)

If SA rugby franchises’ results don’t improve soon, the returning Bok players may need to shoulder a heavy burden as the clubs fight to build momentum for the European tournaments. 

It’s been two weeks since the Springboks won the Rugby World Cup in France. The hangover from the final, and from the rousing trophy tour through some cities of South Africa, will linger for several months yet. The achievement of winning back-to-back titles and a record four World Cups will echo into eternity.

The Boks will finish the year ranked as the world’s No 1 side. They’re likely to retain this position ahead of their next assignment: a Test series against Ireland in July 2024.

Whether the respective South African franchises finish the year in a position of strength is quite another story. The challenge of competing across the respective European club tournaments for 11 straight weeks may dilute their potency and compromise their playoff ambitions. It’s not going to get any easier for the players, or for the coaches operating with limited resources.

Boks rested until December

Damian Willemse playing for Stormers

Damian Willemse will soon be back in action for the Stormers after helping the Springboks win their fourth Rugby World Cup. (Photo: Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images)

In 2019, coaches Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber were transparent about their plans to win the World Cup. They told the players they would be in camp from the start of the Rugby Championship to the end of the World Cup in Japan, and even made provision for a potential trophy tour thereafter. After 20 weeks with the national side, those Boks would have an extended break.

The rugby world was a very different place then. A typical provincial season in South Africa would start in February with the Super Rugby tournament and end in late October with the Currie Cup. The Test season ran from July to November, or until the end of October in World Cup years.

The Boks based in South Africa were granted a rest after winning the World Cup in 2019, but they returned to their respective franchises well before the start of the 2020 Super Rugby tournament.

These players didn’t enjoy the benefit of a full preseason alongside club teammates – and as conditioning coaches and sport scientists will tell you, that can lead to problems down the road. But, by and large, those Boks had a few months away from competitive rugby before the new season commenced in mid- to late February.

Consider the situation now that the South African franchises are competing in the European club season, which runs from September to June. The start of the United Rugby Championship (URC) was pushed back to October this year because of the World Cup in France, and yet there are bound to be multiple player-management challenges as the respective teams juggle their personnel and try to reintegrate their Test players.

The World Cup-winning Boks based in South Africa have been granted three weeks’ rest, which means they will only be available to their franchises for the sixth round of the URC (the final weekend of November). Instead of returning from that rest period and beginning a preseason conditioning programme – as was the case in 2019 – they may be rushed straight back into competitive rugby.

It’s a big ask for the players. And yet, some of the franchises that have endured a poor start to the season – such as the Sharks, who have lost their first three URC matches by 10 points or more – may have no choice but to fast-track their Boks.

Spreading the load

Eben Etzebeth plays for Sharks

Eben Etzebeth will return to KwaZulu-Natal’s Sharks franchise following a three-week rest period. (Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images)

Bulls boss Jake White and Stormers coach John Dobson have already spoken about the need to rotate their squads over a gruelling three-month period. The Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers will play 11 consecutive matches between 21 October and 31 December. None of these teams will have a bye until the first week of the new year.

Somewhat predictably, all four teams have enjoyed less-than-convincing starts to the URC. Though the Bulls and Stormers each claimed two emphatic wins at home, the local collective combined for eight losses in nine fixtures staged overseas in the first three rounds. The Sharks began the fourth round at the bottom of the 16-team table.

It’s been plain to see how some of the local sides have continued to struggle in northern hemisphere conditions. It may be some time before they adapt to the inclement weather, local referee interpretations and 4G pitches to win more consistently in Europe.

European teams have also battled to adapt when competing down here at the height of South Africa’s summer. Few foreign teams have managed to perform at altitude when visiting the Bulls and Lions.

Knowing this, coaches on both sides of the equator have placed a greater emphasis on winning home matches, given that away victories – in the URC and the Champions Cup – are so hard to come by.

Boxing clever

 Bongi Mbonambi of the Cell C Sharks

The Sharks may have to fast-track the return of Springbok squad members such as Bongi Mbonambi for the United Rugby Championship. (Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images)

The South African teams will be gunning for a top-eight finish in the URC, which will ensure that they qualify for the URC playoffs and, perhaps most importantly, the next instalment of the Champions Cup, the top club competition in world rugby.

Over the course of their respective Champions Cup and Challenge Cup campaigns, the South African teams should be trying to accumulate enough points to secure home advantage for the playoffs (where possible – the final will be played at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London).

The Stormers and Sharks won their respective round-of-16 matches at home last year. Both coastal teams, as well as the Bulls, Lions and Cheetahs, lost when they were forced to travel north for a knockout fixture.

The first round of the European playoffs will be staged in April 2024, and the URC quarterfinals are only scheduled for June. There is a lot of rugby to be played over the next six to eight months, but it’s fair to say that the performances and results over the next few weeks will shape the playoff race.

A few log points mean the difference between failure and success. The Sharks would have retained their place in the Champions Cup if they had finished seventh or higher in the URC standings last season. As it was, they finished two points below seventh-placed Connacht, and were relegated to the second-tier Challenge Cup as a result.

The Bulls might have hosted a Champions Cup playoff last season if they had accumulated three more log points across the pool stage of that competition.

Ideally, the South African coaches would manage the returning Boks carefully at the back end of a tricky period in the European season. But if the results don’t improve soon, those World Cup winners may need to shoulder a heavier load as their clubs fight to remain in the URC race and build momentum for the all-important European tournaments. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Frank Fettig says:

    Could somebody please photoshop CR out of the picture? Thank you!

  • Gary Olsen says:

    I think we should abandon all of these cross-nations/continent competitions and rekindle the Currie Cup to a status it enjoyed in times gone by and every now and then when they allow us to participate in the odd tour or competition then they will feel the wrath and power of our domestic system that has no equal.

    • Alpha Sithole says:

      Well that wouldn’t really make good commercial sense in the 21st Century, would it? It would certainly ensure that all our best players headed off-shore to make a living.

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