GAVIN RICH: Boks must stay in touch with rivals while not playing international rugby
The heat is on Rassie Erasmus and coach Jacques Nienaber to find innovative ways to ensure players are up to muster when Lions arrive
The decision to withdraw the Springboks from the Rugby Championship was most emphatically the right one, but let’s not pretend it’s an ideal situation.
Indeed, the moment the decision was made, which was probably some time ago, the pressure on the 2021 British and Irish Lions series to not only take place but also to proceed successfully was ratcheted up considerably.
It was a rugby decision, and Bok World Cup-winning captain Siya Kolisi, speaking in his capacity as Stormers skipper after Saturday’s Super Rugby Unlocked fixture at Newlands, endorsed it.
He said he and his teammates were nowhere near fit enough to play international rugby in just a couple of weeks. The best way to get match-fit was to play matches and that was why he was looking forward to the nine-match uninterrupted playing sequence faced by his team.
The risk to the reputation the Boks had built up in rising from the despair and humiliation of consecutive 50 pointers at the hands of the All Blacks in 2016 and 2017, something which is hard to put a monetary value to but it would be considerable, needed to be balanced up against the financial imperative. There was also risk of injury to players rushed back into high-intensity international rugby too early.
Both of those could have had a negative impact on the Lions series, which, depending on how quickly coronavirus vaccines pass the scientific tests and are then rolled out, is now heading up the track towards us at quite a rate.
But what if we’re still in the pandemic and crowds aren’t allowed into stadiums by the time the tour arrives next July? Without the banker, which was the expected windfall of the Lions series, I doubt the SA administrators would have allowed rugby sense to prevail.
So there is pressure there, and there is also pressure on national director of rugby Rassie Erasmus and Bok coach Jacques Nienaber to find innovative ways to ensure that the Boks are up to muster when the Lions arrive.
If watching last week’s Bledisloe Cup game was a reminder of why the Boks should not participate in the Rugby Championship, yesterday’s game in Auckland sent out a warning of how quickly SA could get left behind in a sport where there is constant evolution of both playing style and in the standing of the different competing nations.
Forget the 20-point difference between the teams at Eden Park, the Wallabies showed in both Test matches played on New Zealand soil that they will improve considerably under the coaching of former Chiefs mentor Dave Rennie. Although well beaten in the second game after the first one was drawn, the Wallabies still showed a hard edge they didn’t have before.
It took a huge improvement on the part of the All Blacks to beat them as comfortably as they did, and that’s what I am referring to when I speak of evolution. Actually, let’s call it micro evolution as opposed to macro evolution.
It is that micro evolution that comes through playing successive international rugby games, growing in incremental fashion, that the Boks will be missing out on now that they won’t be playing at a time when their competitors are.
The players the Boks will face in the Lions series aren’t playing international rugby yet, but they will soon be. There is the end of the 2020 Six Nations and the entire 2021 Six Nations still to come, depending of course on what the coronavirus does, before the Lions fly to SA.
We don’t know yet what competition the SA players will be playing in after the Currie Cup final in mid-January next year. My two big hopes are first that the SA Rugby stakeholders stick to the plan to have a proper six-week break between the current season and the start of whatever is to come after the Currie Cup. And second, that somehow our players still get exposed in some way to New Zealand rugby. The Kiwis remain the sport’s main innovators.
What SA rugby cannot afford to do in this period of mini-isolation is make the mistake that rugby made during the apartheid isolation era of thinking that because we were just playing among ourselves, we were the best in the world. In reality, isolation hammered the SA game and it took a long time to catch up.
The Boks don’t have a long time. Their last game was the World Cup final and their next game is the first Test against the Lions. Fortunately, two master-strategists, Erasmus and Nienaber, are the men in charge. Under some previous coaches the Boks would have had no hope of staying in touch with their competitors while not playing international rugby.
It is not just up to Erasmus and Nienaber though. The pressure is on all seven franchises to produce the level of rugby over the next three months that will provide some kind of constructive build-up towards what promises to be a challenging 2021 season.
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