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FEATURE 'The Rugby Championship is in danger of becoming an unlevel playing field'

'The Rugby Championship is in danger of becoming an unlevel playing field'
10 months ago

It won’t be often, if indeed if it ever happens again, the Springboks come into a Test match against the All Blacks with their players fresher and better rested.

This was the scenario in their Rugby Championship clash on 15th July when 13 players who started that game had been sent to New Zealand early to get over their jet lag.

It was a risky decision by the Boks as it meant they had to face the Wallabies the week before in Pretoria without those players – many of whom would be considered first choice.

But head coach Jacques Nienaber was happy to take that risk, rightly believing his second stringers could take care of Australia while the heavy artillery rested up in Auckland – knowing that they would have a better preparation schedule than the All Blacks, whose 36-man squad all travelled to Argentina and only returned home five days before the Test at Mt Smart Stadium.

Yet, while it was seemingly advantage South Africa, it didn’t play out that way, as the All Blacks produced a blistering opening 20 minutes, taking a 17-0 lead which set them up to go on to win 35-20.

New Zealand v South Africa - The Rugby Championship
New Zealand blitzed South Africa in the early throes of their Rugby Championship showdown at Mt Smart Stadium. (Photo by Dave Rowland/Getty Images)

Asked whether he had made the right call sending the advanced party over early, Nienaber said: “I think the first 15 or 20 [minutes] we gave away four consecutive penalties, we made a lot of mistakes.

“I thought the guys who played last week actually came on in the second half and you could see they were a little bit more battle-hardened and a little bit more exposed to rugby.

In 2019 a similar thing happened, [with] the guys who weren’t exposed to Australia at Ellis Park. I think in 2019 we had 15 guys here [NZ], and that’s why we decided to not go with a full 15 fresh guys staying here, we wanted to mix it up a little bit. So we knew that there was the pros and the cons there.”

What makes this strategising so interesting is that this issue of managing the workload of South African, and indeed Argentinian, players is now something both nations are doing on a permanent basis. For all the consequences of dismantling Super Rugby in 2020 are only now being felt.

It may have appeared as if South Africa seamlessly handled the break-out by transitioning its four Super Rugby franchises into the United Rugby Championship and that the Argentinians shrugged off the axing of the Jaguares by finding contracts for their top players across the UK and Europe.

The only real upshot seemed to be that it left New Zealand’s best players underexposed to the more brutal, bigger athletes of South Africa.

It’s not sustainable for either nation to continue like this – to have their club affiliation with the north and international presence in the south – as the risks to their players are growing unacceptably high.

But now the world has returned to post-pandemic normality, a big problem has become apparent. An untenable new world where the South Africans and Argentinians have one foot in each hemisphere and because of this, are barely afforded any kind of rest period in a 12-month season.

It’s not sustainable for either nation to continue like this – to have their club affiliation with the north and international presence in the south – as the risks to their players are growing unacceptably high.

They need more rest and the best way for them to get it, maybe the only way, is to shift the Rugby Championship from its current August-September window and play it instead in March-April.

It would be a dramatic shift that would cause significant upheaval in Australia and New Zealand, but it would solve the problem South Africa and Argentina are facing and avert the looming existential player welfare crisis.

The issue has been discussed at length among the four SANZAAR partners and it seems that three of them – South Africa, Argentina and Australia – share the view they should make the switch.

New Zealand, on the other hand, isn’t so keen, fearing it will kill its national provincial competition as it would force Super Rugby to move to a May-September window and be played at the same time.

But it is going to be tough for NZR to resist the change according to Rugby Australia and SANZAAR chair, Hamish McLennan, who told the New Zealand Herald: “This is probably one area where we differ from New Zealand.

Hamish McLennan expects the Rugby Championship’s future schedule to hinge on New Zealand Rugby. (Photo by SAEED KHAN/AFP via Getty Images)

“I understand New Zealand’s position because it creates a lot of difficulty at provincial level but for the greater good that’s probably where it is heading.

“When South Africa were forced north it wasn’t as elegantly handled as it could’ve been. They’ve put all their eggs into going north. If we can move the global calendar around so it’s all in sync we can preserve the Rugby Championship.

“I worry South Africa will migrate north completely. That would be a disaster for NZR and RA.

“Ultimately it’s going to come down to New Zealand in this instance. We understand the complexities around shifting the provincial competitions. It’s not ideal for us, either, but if it keeps the whole ecosystem together and we build assets globally then we’re open to it.

“It’s going to land on NZR’s doorstep, and they’ve got to decide what they’re going to do.”

Changing dates would create other challenges for NZR and indeed Rugby Australia. Both countries would have to work out how to prepare their Test players without necessarily having access to competitive matches before the Rugby Championship began.

Currently, the season starts in late February with Super Rugby, which is played uninterrupted through to mid-June.

The Rugby Championship is in danger of being an unlevel playing field.

The players take a couple of weeks off, play three July tests and then begin the Rugby Championship in early August, before they have another month off between mid-September to mid-October and then start their end-of-year northern tours.

The system makes perfect high-performance sense, and so if it changes, NZR would have to find a way to condition the All Blacks to be ready at a tricky time, which is why they have looked at the possibility of building a national training centre where the players could work together over the summer.

But perhaps the real problem for NZR in all this is that they feel they are being blamed for a problem which was not of their making.

While it’s true NZR was the instigator of the Super Rugby fragmentation, it contends that South Africa was going to pull its teams out anyway as part of a plan to align with the north and attempt to solicit an invitation for the Springboks to join the Six Nations.

New Zealand appears to believe that South Africa gambled on being able to force the Springboks into the Six Nations, and now that that they have been rebuffed, are scrambling to find a long-term solution to a Rugby Championship problem they never thought they would have.

South Africa, however, insist they aligned their clubs with the URC not as a deliberate strategy to pave the way for the Boks, but because it was the only realistic option available to them.

Whether or not this is all political shenanigans, it doesn’t change the fact that the nettle must be grasped. The Rugby Championship is in danger of being an unlevel playing field, with the Boks and Pumas having to constantly consider ways to manage fatigue and lessen workloads.


Gavin 309 days ago

Sadly rugby is now only about money, with each country trying to maximise profits to pay their high performance players.

For me what is really disturbing is the inequality in the world rugby governing body. IMHO a reset is urgently needed; out with the old boys club to be replaced with a more equitable representation.

Another interesting stat, is the number of players playing for “their country”. The Saffa’s could field another team with all their exports, which makes the likes of Scotland look a whole heap better than they should be. Ultimately fans, supporters and sponsors don’t care how they win, as long as they win, but it is laughable listening to the commentators struggling to pronounce the Scottish names.

And last but not least, is the Owen Farrell “tackle”. The outcome of this hearing will surely be determined by the old boys club. Let’s hope I’m wrong!

Warner 310 days ago

what glory to play in the SIX NOTHINGS.
A comp that's only produced one result one lonely result , Rugby Champ has produced 8/9 and it will be 9/10 by the end of 2023

Warner 310 days ago

To set records straight here's something to ponder over.
SA V NZ 104 games played
NZ 62
SA 38
Draw 4

AR V NZ 36 games
NZ 33
AR 3
Draw 1

ABs history
621 TEST WINS =77.1%
Hanson 88%
Henry 84%
Smith 72%
Foster 67.7%
Fosters win rate as bad as he is , is higher than Northern Hemisphere winning percentages.
I won't go into their stats as they are abysmal.

Kevin 311 days ago

A better idea would be to move the July window to late Sept and move the Nov window in October, creating a 7 week block like the RWC.
The TRC could be played prior to that and the 6N could be moved to August as well.
Domestic in NH played Nov-May, with June and July off.

Roydon 311 days ago

Stuff Nzr and Aus. They ran away from playing sr against Sa or Argentina play it in March or Saru should walk out of sanzaar.

Craig 311 days ago

Nope we aren't compromising because SA gambled on the 6nations and failed. Leave SA to their own devices. They are always complaining because they're not happy losing all the time.... tough

David 312 days ago

well it always has been look at australia losing every game and the allblacks only travelled to australia and argentina bring japan and a pacific side into it

JD Kiwi 312 days ago

South Africa rested their players when the Six Nations was on this year.. That's the obvious time for them.

Forward pass 312 days ago

You cannot have NZ and Aus playing test rugby before SR. How on earth do the players get conditioned? SA made a choice so that's their problem. How is player safety better if the first game of the season is against club hardened players from the north. We have contracts.

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