Rassie Erasmus has to manage the overplayed trio of Pieter-Steph du Toit, Siya Kolisi and Handré Pollard more carefully in the lead-up to the World Cup, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The fans who attended the fixture at Twickenham on Saturday certainly got their money’s worth. Indeed, I couldn’t help but share in the excitement – while watching the match on TV – as a clutch of South Africans spearheaded a famous comeback and victory for the Barbarians over a weakened Argentina.
Then I started to think about what the game meant in the grand scheme of things. Absolutely nothing.
Argentina were missing a host of first-choice players. I wondered why the Erasmus-coached Barbarians insisted on playing Du Toit, Kolisi and Pollard – first-choice players and a key trio in the context of the Springboks’ 2019 World Cup campaign – right up to the final whistle.
Kolisi and Pollard played every minute at Twickenham. Du Toit was subbed in the 64th minute after copping a nasty blow to the face. For some reason, he was sent back out on to the park in the 76th minute and managed to finish the game.
There’s been a lot of talk about player management recently. There’s been a call to limit exposure during training as well as game time with the long-term aim of ensuring that star players don’t finish their professional careers sooner rather than later.
How do the players feel?
Eben Etzebeth told me earlier this year that many hope for a ‘minor’ injury that will allow them an opportunity to rest and recuperate. That in itself is a cry for help.
Du Toit suggested that the demands are unfair – especially for players who represent franchise and country – and that a rethink in approach is required.
Before the match against the Barbarians, Kolisi admitted that he was emotionally and physically drained. You never turn down the chance to lead your country, but one would hope that the relevant parties start to consider Kolisi’s welfare before he succumbs to injury.
To state the obvious, all of South Africa’s assets need to managed to peak at the next World Cup. The Barbarians, and the respective Super Rugby entities, do not matter as much as the Boks.
|MOST PLAYED BOKS
||TEST MINUTES*||FRANCHISE MINUTES||TOTAL|
|PIETER-STEPH DU TOIT
*Includes Barbarians vs Argentina match
One has to ask why Du Toit, Kolisi and Pollard have been pushed to play so much in 2018, and why they were used so extensively in the recent Barbarians match.
Indeed, something should be read into the fact that, outside of the South African contingent, none of the players used by the Barbarians stand a realistic chance of playing in the World Cup next year.
Why weren’t the best players from New Zealand used for this clash? One would assume that the top players from Ireland, England, Wales and Scotland weren’t available due to club commitments. The Wallabies have been woeful this season, but why were none of their marquee players released for the showpiece fixture at Twickenham?
Are those players being saved for the World Cup? Are they being protected against serious injury and burnout? That course of action would make a lot of sense.
One would hope that Du Toit, Kolisi and Pollard make it to the World Cup. All three have played a lot of rugby this year, and should get a break before the Boks regroup ahead of the global tournament.
I say ‘should’, because the chances of the Stormers and Bulls – the worst-placed teams in the 2018 Super Rugby tournament – managing their best players with the Boks in mind are not good. The sad truth is that South African franchises and unions look out for their own interests.
Let’s be clear. Erasmus should be using these players extensively at the Boks. He shouldn’t be trying to manage key players after they’ve been used and abused by their franchises in the Super Rugby tournament that precedes the Test season.
Du Toit was used at lock and flank by club and country this season. He played 1023 out of a possible 1280 minutes for the Stormers, and was the only Bok to play in every one of the 14 Tests as well as the Barbarians game.
The Stormers didn’t make the playoffs, and for that we can be grateful as far Du Toit’s workload is concerned. He played every minute in 12 of the Boks’ Tests.
Du Toit as well as Pollard played every minute on the Boks’ four-Test tour of Europe. After missing parts of the 2016 and 2017 seasons due to injuries, Pollard was played into the ground by the Bulls during the Super Rugby tournament and used extensively at Test level.
That said, Elton Jantjies – the second-choice pivot at the Boks – was also used and abused at franchise level. Like Franco Mostert, Jantjies played every minute of the Lions’ Super Rugby campaign.
Mostert, however, was still expected to put in a big shift at the Boks, and finished the year with more playing minutes than any other South African player (involved in Super Rugby and Test rugby).
The scary thing is that 2018 isn’t over yet for Mostert. He has linked up with English side Gloucester and plays through to next May following a long Super Rugby and Test season. The Boks are fortunate that they have other lock options, as Mostert may be physically spent by the time he reports for World Cup duty next September.
Faf de Klerk and Willie le Roux find themselves in a similar position. Like Mostert, both missed the first game of the Boks’ tour to the northern hemisphere due to commitments with English clubs. De Klerk ended up playing one game on the tour. The numbers, however, suggest that De Klerk and Le Roux have been used extensively for the past year or so.
De Klerk played 774 out of a possible 1,120 minutes for the Boks, while Le Roux played 882. Scrumhalves and fullbacks aren’t exposed to the same level of attrition as forwards. That said, one has to remember that De Klerk joined the Boks after playing all 22 games for Sale in the 2017-18 English Premiership. Le Roux returned to the Bok setup in June after representing Wasps in all but two fixtures.
As South Africa’s director of rugby, Erasmus can ask the respective franchises to rest key Boks over the course of the Super Rugby tournament. He can’t, unfortunately, control how South African players are managed at overseas clubs.
New Zealand leads the world in terms of player management. The players in the New Zealand system, those who play for the franchises and especially those who are with the All Blacks, are all managed with the national team in mind.
The Crusaders won the Super Rugby tournament this year. One could argue that Codie Taylor, Sam Whitelock and Scott Barrett – all forwards – were used extensively by franchise and country. One couldn’t argue, however, that this has compromised the All Blacks ahead of the 2019 World Cup.
Taylor was used more by the All Blacks in 2018 because first-choice hooker Dane Coles was unavailable due to injury. Whitelock played more in the injury-enforced absence of another senior lock in Brodie Retallick. Scott Barrett’s extensive exposure will only boost the team’s depth in that lock position.
Ben Smith was one of the most-used All Blacks backs with 928 out of a possible 1,120 minutes. And yet that total is well below that of the most-used Boks.
Beauden Barrett represented the Test side in 11 Tests for a total of 781 minutes. Compare that to Pollard’s tally of 997 for the Boks.
One can understand why Erasmus backed several players to start so frequently in 2018. Indeed, how would the Bok record in 2018 read had Du Toit, Kolisi, Pollard, Le Roux, De Klerk, Mostert and a few others not played so much? One also needs to remember that it was Erasmus’ first year in charge, and that he also went out of this way to blood a host of new players (19) over the course of the season.
It doesn’t explain why he pushed his most utilised players in the Barbarians fixture, though. He must have had his heart in his mouth when Du Toit left the field, and when another important player in Aphiwe Dyantyi clutched at his knee.
Can Erasmus force the respective franchises to manage the elite players with the Boks and the World Cup in mind? It would be a first for South African rugby. It would be asking a lot of the Bulls and Stormers, who are both rebuilding after a recording a string of poor results in 2018.
However, if the teams in question continue on their current course of mismanagement, Du Toit, Kolisi, Pollard and several others will struggle to peak at the global tournament.
One would hope that sanity prevails, and that the powers that be work together to protect the nation’s greatest assets: the players themselves.
Photo: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images