The Springboks have a lot of physical and mental ground to make up if they're going to catch the New Zealanders at the World Cup. JON CARDINELLI reports.
South Africa's franchises have failed on almost every count. As the international season looms, it's left to the Bok coach to pick up the pieces with regards to the physical and mental management of the country's best players.
The five teams have not managed the elite players sufficiently well over the past six months. This is why so many players have turned up for Bok duty with injuries both minor and major. This is why the Boks' Rugby Championship challenge will be compromised, and why it will be difficult for the first-choice side to build momentum ahead of the World Cup.
Some have spun South Africa's Vodacom Super Rugby failure as a blessing in disguise, as it allows the elite players an extra two weeks to recover before the international season. Heyneke Meyer has also called all the top players into camp a week earlier than expected, given that there is no South African team playing in the Super Rugby final this Saturday.
I suppose it's better than nothing. But then one has to ask why the five South African franchises didn't work harder to manage the elite players. And would the injury situation have been that much worse had a South African side advanced to the final? No. The damage was done over six months, not two weeks.
By contrast, New Zealand rugby appears to be thriving in every respect. Suggestions that they are peaking too early in a World Cup year are laughable.
Their Super Rugby franchises have managed the top players with the World Cup in mind. Despite a rest programme that has seen many players sitting out at various stages of the competition, three New Zealand teams advanced to the play-offs.
Two Kiwi sides will contest the final. This Saturday, New Zealand will claim it's 13th Super Rugby title in 20 years, and will go into the international season with physical and mental momentum. Their players are still fresh, and they have to feel confident about their place in the greater scheme of things given their success against South African teams in 2015.
Overall, South Africa’s teams won just six of their 20 matches against Kiwi opposition. Three of those wins came against New Zealand's worst side, the Blues.
None of South Africa's traditional powerhouses (the Bulls, Sharks, and Stormers – teams that will supply the bulk of the World Cup squad) managed to beat the top two New Zealand sides (the Hurricanes and Highlanders). The Sharks were the only one of the three to beat New Zealand's third-best side, the Chiefs.
The optimists will argue that Super Rugby success is no guarantee of World Cup glory. While this is true, the Boks still have good reason to fear their New Zealand counterparts.
After a disastrous Super Rugby season for South African teams, the Boks are now on the back foot. Meyer and his lieutenants face a significant challenge in building this group up, both physically and mentally, before the World Cup.
The opportunity to compete in the high-pressure environment of a Super Rugby semi-final or final would have benefited South Africa's elite players in the lead-up to the global tournament. Sadly, it seems the Kiwis will be the sole beneficiaries of that exercise, and will sharpen their mental edge ahead of the big World Cup matches later this year.
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