The Rugby Championship, featuring the top three teams in the world and rising powers Argentina, should be all about the best the game can offer, a showpiece for the talents of most of the best players on the planet.
But unfortunately for governing body Sanzar, it’s all about quantity rather than quality.
For Sanzar, the aim seems to be to fill every weekend of the year with rugby – SuperRugby stretched from February 24 to August 4, followed by the Rugby Championship from August 18 to October 7 – rather than ensuring that their product is the best it can be.
Before anyone accuses me of just being bitter because the Springboks are in the doldrums, let’s look at New Zealand, unbeaten in this year’s Rugby Championship and occupants of top spot on the log.
By their own admission, the All Blacks have struggled to hit their stride thus far, and many experienced observers have been wondering how a team as poor as Australia’s managed to stay in the games against them for so long. When last did New Zealand play as poorly at home as they did in Dunedin against the Springboks?
It can be argued that South Africa’s game plan is keeping their opposition in the game as well, but despite the new blood in the side, their displays have also been lacklustre.
The one side that has played with passion and intensity has been Argentina, which has performed with the typical enthusiasm of the new boys. With the vast majority of its players based in Europe, the team also doesn’t have to deal with the draining effects of SuperRugby. The European clubs generally have bigger squads, so the workload is shared around more.
Leading South African sports scientist Professor Tim Noakes says it is impossible for the players to play with their usual intensity and accuracy after more than 14 weeks of high-intensity rugby, never mind the 22 weeks they endured at the start of the season.
“The players will pace themselves and make more mistakes. There won’t be the same intensity; they’ll cut out sprinting on the field, for instance.
“It’s because they’re exhausted. The brain tells the body to go easy and the players aren’t even aware of it. They’ll know they’re tired, but it won’t be a deliberate attempt to hold back. It’s just that their bodies can’t give them anything more,” Noakes says.
The ridiculous demands on the players are also shown in the catastrophic injury rate. The Springboks are without Bismarck du Plessis, Coenie Oosthuizen, Schalk Burger, Siya Kolisi, Pierre Spies, Bjorn Basson, JP Pietersen and Pat Cilliers, while the likes of Heinrich Brussow, Duane Vermuelen and Johan Goosen have just returned to action after SuperRugby.
Australia has been similarly ravaged by injury, with the captains being particularly unfortunate. James Horwill, David Pocock and Will Genia are all out, joining Quade Cooper, James O’Connor, Stephen Moore, Wycliff Palu, Sekope Kepu, Lachie Turner, Drew Mitchell, Rob Horne, Christian Lealiifano, Joe Tomane, Ben McCalman, Dan Palmer, Salesi Ma’afu and Sitaleki Timani on the sidelines.
The injury situation has become so bad that one of the team doctors has actually sent a letter of complaint to the governing body!
The product has to suffer with so many stars not featuring and the great god of TV has to see the warning lights flashing after some of the mediocre fare dished up this year.
It’s important to note that it’s not just matches every weekend that fatigue the players. It’s all the training and travelling (which is particularly onerous in the southern hemisphere) as well.
Thanks to sports science, the days when coaches would proudly say that the players died out on the training field are gone. The most successful coaches are those who taper and construct their training sessions the most efficiently, rather than just wearing the players out with over-training.
“Expanded competitions are widely being held accountable for increased demand on the top players and the rise in long-term injuries. But the management of player welfare isn’t as black and white as measuring the number of playing minutes each player receives in the game,” Queensland Reds coach Ewen McKenzie said last week.
“It is paramount that we protect our key assets, our players, and mitigate the risks of injury where possible. Probably the most effective way we manage our players’ workload is to determine the amount of minutes they spend in training versus the amount of minutes spent playing actual games. This is an area where teams have the biggest opportunity to manage an individual’s player welfare.
“We obviously want our top-performing and therefore highest-paid players on the field and fit to play every match in the season, so that’s where we start and work backwards from there. Typically, players can undertake up to three times more minutes in training each week than the important 80 minutes at the end of the week – playing in front of the supporters, viewers and sponsors.
“We need to ensure our players are receiving adequate rest to ensure they can perform at an optimal level during peak playing periods,” McKenzie said.
The bigger squads the SuperRugby coaches are asking for will help alleviate the situation a bit, but again the product suffers, because second-string talent is on show. The only long-term solution is for Sanzar to cut back on the schedule.
The old adage that less is more is the pertinent one in the case of top-level rugby. DM