The long club season is drawing to a close, and Test coaches are starting to assess the physical and mental condition of their charges ahead of an international schedule that will culminate with the World Cup tournament in France.
SA Rugby’s decision to implement a 32-game cap for players based at the South African franchises appears to have done the trick – at least from a national point of view – as most of the local Springboks look set to finish the campaign well below the limit.
Star players based in England and France remain at the mercy of their clubs, and will only report for national duty on the eve of the upcoming Test season. Meanwhile, nine 2019 World Cup veterans based in Japan have enjoyed the best of both worlds over the past nine months.
These players have been encouraged to embrace new skills and have had the chance to work alongside former Test coaches of the calibre of Robbie Deans, Steve Hansen and others. What’s more, the shorter, less condensed League One tournament has provided these stars with a rare opportunity to rehab long-term injuries and condition their bodies for the upcoming World Cup challenge in France.
The 16-round league phase of the Japanese competition concluded two weeks ago, allowing lock Lood de Jager and centre Damian de Allende (Panasonic Wild Knights) an extended period of preparation ahead of the semi-final clash against the Canon Eagles – who boast scrumhalf Faf de Klerk and centre Jesse Kriel in their ranks.
Meanwhile, star hooker Malcolm Marx will pack down for the Kubota Spears against Suntory Sungoliath in the other playoff this weekend. Utility forward Franco Mostert remains involved with Honda Heat in the Japanese second division.
Pieter-Steph du Toit and Willie le Roux (Toyota Verblitz) and Kwagga Smith (Shizuoka Blue Revs) have been released – due to the fact that their respective clubs have not qualified for the playoffs – and should arrive at the first Bok camp next month rejuvenated and renewed.
All nine of these players have featured prominently during the Rassie Erasmus-Jacques Nienaber era, winning the World Cup in 2019 and the series against the British and Irish Lions in 2021. Fitness permitting, all nine will occupy key leadership roles at the 2023 World Cup.
“The main reason I came to Japan was for my body,” says De Jager, who endured more than his fair share of injury setbacks while representing the Cheetahs, Bulls and then the Sale Sharks between 2013 and 2022.
“I want to play for the Boks for as long as they’ll have me. I don’t think I would last if I continued to play for a European club and then the Boks – in what is effectively a never-ending season.
“In Japan, there aren’t as many games staged in League One [compared to other major tournaments in Europe], and the players are rotated across the season, so there’s little risk of burnout. There’s relatively little travel, and you find that you have a lot more time to spend with the family, and to put extra work into your game.
There are little to no distractions on this side. It’s just rugby, and you have so much more time to work on your game.
“I can gym three times a week over here,” the big man adds enthusiastically. “I would never be able to do that in South Africa. I can rehab small niggles, and I can spend more time on analysis. Over a longer period, I can get myself in the best possible shape to be ready for the Boks – if they come calling.”
Kriel, who will face off against his Bok midfield partner De Allende this weekend, agrees with De Jager’s assessment.
“Lood is 100% spot on. There are little to no distractions on this side. It’s just rugby, and you have so much more time to work on your game.
“While Canon have assisted with the growth of my game, I’ve also been in touch with the Bok coaches,” Kriel continues. “They’re constantly providing feedback and solutions with the aim of making us better players – even though we’re on the other side of the world.
“The two-week break ahead of the Japanese semi-finals was unreal. I played a lot of golf. It was great to have that chance to switch off mentally. Now I’m back and refreshed, and ready to tackle the playoffs.”
The less demanding schedule as well as the unique cultural experience of living and playing in Japan are often listed as the primary reasons for moving to the Far East. In addition, De Jager and Kriel reveal that they have learned a great deal on the pitch since their respective arrivals.
Robbie Deans, the legendary Crusaders coach who also served as the Wallabies boss between 2008 and 2013, has been the director of rugby at Panasonic Wild Knights for the better part of a decade. The Wild Knights have won the past two instalments of the Japanese competition and – after winning 15 of their 16 league matches – are favourites to clinch a third-consecutive title later this month.
“Maybe the other players in Japan don’t realise it, but I know having come from South African and English setups how good this situation at Panasonic really is,” says De Jager.
It’s a different style of rugby in Japan, and very different to what I experienced while playing for the Bulls, Boks or even Sale. I’m used to focusing on set pieces and physicality. Over here, there is a lot more emphasis on attack and keeping the ball alive.
Lood de Jager
“Damian de Allende and I are fortunate to be part of such a professional set-up. The facilities are some of the best I’ve experienced, and Robbie Deans is really hands on.
“It’s a different style of rugby in Japan, and very different to what I experienced while playing for the Bulls, Boks or even Sale. I’m used to focusing on set pieces and physicality. Over here, there is a lot more emphasis on attack and keeping the ball alive. It does actually remind me of my early days at the Cheetahs, where we’d try to keep the ball for as long as possible,” he adds.
“Don’t get me wrong, under Robbie there is still a lot of structure and kicking, but the amount of time that is dedicated to attack in training is something I haven’t experienced before.
“It’s opened my eyes to a new way of playing, and if given the chance I would certainly try to implement some of the ideas into a more traditional South African style. If I ever went into coaching, I would draw on what I’ve learned in South Africa, England and Japan. That’s the benefit of travelling the world and exposing yourself to all these different brands.”
Kriel has been in white-hot form for the Canon Eagles over the past season. The addition of De Klerk, Kriel’s national teammate, has amplified the club’s potency.
“Faf has had a big impact since joining at the start of the season,” Kriel confirms. “He’s enjoying the rugby here, and the style suits his game really well.
“The game has become extremely competitive over here, as teams are stacked with so many classy Japanese and foreign players. The fact that so many different players from different countries play over here – and contribute all sorts of IP on how they play the game – really opens your eyes. It forces you to think about the game differently.
“Canon play an extremely exciting brand of rugby. I get a lot of touches on the ball in our game plan, which is probably why I have loved playing over here for the past few years. The tries I’ve scored are just a by-product of the hard work that the guys around me put in week in and week out,” Kriel adds, in his usual self-effacing manner.
The Boks’ most recent performances against Italy and England this past November showcased a more ambitious approach. Once all of their players are back, they may vary their game plan in the Rugby Championship.
Nobody is expecting the Boks to move away from their pragmatic template any time soon. And yet, after squandering so many scoring chances across the 2022 season, their attack could do with a tune-up before the World Cup in France.
The Boks’ most recent performances against Italy and England this past November showcased a more ambitious approach. Once all of their players are back, they may vary their game plan in the Rugby Championship, and possibly at the World Cup itself.
“We had our ups and downs in 2022, but it felt like we added something new, particularly on the end of year tour, to Europe,” notes De Jager. “We were playing a more balanced game.”
Many experts will argue that the physical and tactical grind of elite tournaments such as the Champions Cup serve as ideal preparation for Test rugby.
But with South African rugby players in a unique situation where they play club rugby from September to June, and then Test rugby from July to November, burnout has become a real danger. With this in mind, the Boks may be boosted by the fact that such a large and important group of players has chosen to play their club rugby in Japan.
The Rugby Championship should provide De Jager, Kriel and others with the chance to showcase what they’ve learned. Thereafter, they may be among a relatively small group that goes the physical and mental distance in a marathon of a season that climaxes in late October.
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