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FEATURE South African teams confront club v country conflict in never-ending season

South African teams confront club v country conflict in never-ending season
6 months ago

The Springboks made history when they won a fourth World Cup title in October last year. While that record is worth celebrating, it would be a stretch to suggest that it has solved all of South African rugby’s problems at franchise level – or that the Republic’s top teams are suddenly primed to win the Champions Cup.

Navigating a new tournament structure played across two hemispheres, as well as a season spanning 12 months, has served up a series of unprecedented challenges over the past three seasons. Balancing the needs of the national side with the needs of the franchises has proved easier said than done, especially in the current scenario, where the top players are coming off a successful World Cup campaign and are still due some five weeks of rest in the allotted window of February and March.

It remains to be seen whether a South African team will feature for the third successive time in the United Rugby Championship final, or if any of the top teams will improve on last season’s performances by qualifying for the Champions Cup semi-finals.

Until the global calendar is restructured to align the northern and southern hemisphere seasons, top South African players will continue to be subjected to these resting protocols and the franchises will continue to suffer as a result.

South Africa celebrate
South Africa’s RWC triumph was wildly celebrated but demands on top players have had a knock-on effect (Photo Rodger Bosch/AFP via Getty Images)

It’s been 15 years since South Africa last dominated the game at all levels. In 2009, John Smit’s Boks added to their legacy by beating the British and Irish Lions and winning the Tri-Nations title. The Bulls won the Super Rugby title in 2007, 2009 and 2010, beating the Stormers in the latter final. Both the Boks and the Blitzboks – South Africa’s men’s sevens team – were at the top of the world rankings at that stage.

Rassie Erasmus has often reflected on that golden era for South African rugby. After taking the reins as director of rugby in 2018, he spoke about the national side as well as the franchises working together to get South African rugby back to the top.

The Boks certainly reaped the rewards of this partnership, winning two World Cups and a Lions series during a six-year period. Meanwhile, the franchises enjoyed little to moderate success, with the Stormers the only side to win silverware – beating Bulls in the inaugural URC final in 2022.

Hundreds of players who may have been part of the South African rugby pyramid – and boosted the quality and depth of the franchises – are now overseas.

That’s not to say that the Boks and SA Rugby haven’t gone out of their way to assist the growth of the respective franchises and provinces. While the recent World Cup successes have lifted the country as well as the South African game as a whole, SA Rugby bosses are desperate for the franchises to realise their potential in Europe.

Indeed, the situation is a lot more complicated than it was back in 2009, where the exodus to Europe and Japan was yet to accelerate, and all of South Africa’s teams competed in Super Rugby.

Over the years, the socio-economic situation in the country worsened, and this has encouraged more players to seek opportunities at clubs abroad. Hundreds of players who may have been part of the South African rugby pyramid – and boosted the quality and depth of the franchises – are now overseas.

Mannie Libbok celebrates
Stormers won the inaugural URC title against Bulls but lost last season’s final to Munster (Photo Rodger Bosch/AFP via Getty Images)

More than half of the 35-man group that won the 2023 World Cup was based in Europe or Japan. Ask any South African rugby fan about the quality of players offshore, and they’re likely to rattle off three or four XVs that would give most Test sides a run for their money.

Other factors certainly impacted on player retention. The Covid-19 pandemic took its toll on SA Rugby as well as the individual franchises. The Stormers were placed in administration due to the mismanagement of their board and are still emerging from that financial hole.

The move to Europe in 2021 put the local sides under pressure like never before. Players were asked to bounce between South Africa and Europe on a regular basis – often travelling in economy class via the Middle East – as well as competing during a European winter.

During the Super Rugby era, South Africa’s top players enjoyed an opportunity to rest and condition their bodies during the off-season in December and January. Nowadays, South African players don’t have the luxury of a designated off-season

The most challenging aspect of this brave new world, however, was the relentless schedule. The Boks began their Test season in July, before competing in the Rugby Championship in August and September. Thereafter, top players featured in the URC – and later, the Champions Cup or Challenge Cup – from September to June.

In July 2022, SA Rugby and MyPlayers – the organisation that represents the players – consulted various medical experts and implemented a structure aimed at preventing physical and mental burnout. The franchises agreed to the terms, and no player breached the 32-game cap over the course of the subsequent 12-month season.

During the Super Rugby era, South Africa’s top players enjoyed an opportunity to rest and condition their bodies during the off-season in December and January. Nowadays, South African players don’t have the luxury of a designated off-season, and so SA Rugby and MyPlayers have struck a deal with the franchises to ensure that the players rest for eight weeks over a 12-month period.

In 2023, the top South Africa-based Boks were granted an eight-week break across February and March. This block included a World Cup preparation camp, as the group looked ahead to the tournament in France.

Eben Etzebeth
Leading players such as Eben Etzebeth are now restricted to a maximum number of games per season (Photo Adam Pretty – World Rugby via Getty Images)

Some of the local coaches baulked at the idea of losing their best players at a crucial stage of the club season – especially the Sharks, who at that stage boasted nine Boks. Again, it was a complicated situation where no-one was to blame.

The players needed the time to rest and condition their bodies for the challenge ahead. On the other hand, you couldn’t blame the franchises for wanting their top players back. The Sharks went on to squeeze into the URC play-offs by a narrow margin, losing to Leinster in the quarter-finals, but missed out on a spot in the subsequent Champions Cup.

The period that followed the 2023 World Cup was always going to test the patience of the franchise coaches. The Boks went on to win the tournament, and while that result would have benefitted South African rugby as a whole, it did preclude top players from featuring for their franchises until late November, and in some cases, the first round of the Champions Cup in December.

All five teams are under pressure to deliver over the next couple of months. For the Bulls, Stormers and Sharks, this may be easier said than done, given that the Boks contingent are due another rest in February and March.

With the World Cup being staged in 2023, the start of the URC was pushed back to late October. The upshot is that the schedule became more congested than ever. The Lions and Sharks played for nine consecutive weeks, and the Bulls for 10. After three months of non-stop rugby, the Stormers had their first bye in January.

It’s a big ask, even before you consider the logistical challenges of travelling to Europe and back on a regular basis. That schedule, as well as the late return of the Boks, has not helped the franchises’ quest for cohesion and consistent results.

All five teams – the Cheetahs also compete in the Challenge Cup – are under pressure to deliver over the next couple of months. For the Bulls, Stormers and Sharks, this may be easier said than done, given that the Boks contingent are due another rest in February and March.

Relatively few club games are staged in that window – there are only two rounds of URC fixtures while the northern hemisphere sides are competing in the Six Nations, scheduled on the two fallow weekends during the tournament, when the South Africans will play a couple of derbies each.

But when a single log point or victory could mean the difference between playing a quarter-final in Europe or South Africa, or even qualifying for next season’s Champions Cup, every game is important. Injuries also tend to complicate plans to rest top players.

The Sharks have lost eight out of nine URC matches to date, and are unlikely to finish in the top eight and qualify for the play-offs. Unless they win the Challenge Cup title, they will not feature in next season’s Champions Cup – an outcome that could have dire consequences for the franchise on many levels.

The Bulls have been the most consistent South African side on show, but will need to kick on if they are going to bank a home play-off in both competitions. The Stormers have clawed their way back into contention for the URC quarter-finals, but their future in this league and in Europe may be shaped by what transpires over the coming weeks.

Here in South Africa, there’s been a lot of chat about the resting protocols. From the outset, the priority has been the players’ wellbeing, and the mandated period of rest should mitigate fatigue-related burnout and injuries.

Aphelele Fassi
The Durban-based Sharks are bottom of the URC and unlikely to make the play-offs (Photo Sam Barnes/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Some have asked whether the players who failed to rack up many game minutes at the 2023 World Cup – such as Sharks duo Jaden Hendrikse and Lukhanyo Am – need such a long break in February and March. Stormers coach John Dobson has called for players to be managed on a case-to-case basis, taking into account their injury history and game time.

You can’t blame a coach for looking out for their own club’s interests. They’ve agreed to release and rest players for the sake of the national side, but that sacrifice may cost them in terms of log position at the end of the club season.

That said, SA Rugby and the players organisation aren’t at fault either, given that they’re trying to protect the players while keeping the national side in mind.

There’s no short-term solution. Down the line, however, a significant change to the global calendar – specifically the way the international windows are structured – may alleviate the pressure on the club coaches and maximise the potential of the franchises, as well as the Boks.

If the Sanzaar unions agree to move the Rugby Championship into the Six Nations window, we may finally have a scenario where the northern and southern hemisphere are aligned in terms of Test and club rugby.

The top players from South Africa – as well as those from Argentina, who are also subject to a never-ending season – would then enjoy a regular off-season in August and September, much like their European counterparts.

There would be no reason for a SA Rugby-sanctioned rest period during the club season, and the respective franchise coaches would be relatively free to manage the players with the club’s ambitions in mind.

Until these changes are implemented, these problems will persist, and the potential of the South African franchises will continue to be unrealised.

Comments

11 Comments
J
JD Kiwi 185 days ago

South Africa has done a great job in difficult circumstances to put the world cup and player welfare first and it's worked out well for them so far. Compare them to France whose players are overworked and continue to underachieve at the big dance.

Anyway, the only games they'll miss in February and March are against each other. So everyone is in the same boat and nobody loses out.

N
Nigel 185 days ago

The SA teams fled from the SR competition with their tails between their legs after 9 winless years. They made their bed, now they must sleep in it. No place for whinging and whining in professional sport.

d
derrick 186 days ago

You fail to bring up or consider the whole reason why the seasons are different.
It is hot at Christmas, way hotter than it ever gets in England in august, so perfect for off season recovering on the beach, way too hot to play rugby.
If anything it is better if the northern hemisphere who barely have a hot summer anyway can compromise a bit.
I think the existing arrangement is fine, February and March is still hot in SA, the clubs just need an arrangement to not play either in that window.

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