Feature: So where do the Boks stand?

Having withdrawn from the Rugby Championship, the Boks must now find ways to prepare for the British & Irish Lions series, writes JON CARDINELLI in the latest SA Rugby magazine.

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SA Rugby made the right call to withdraw the Springboks from the 2020 Rugby Championship. Yet, as the year draws to an end and coaches and administrators count the cost of lost fixtures and opportunities, the challenges of the 2021 season – specifically the Test series against the British & Irish Lions – begins to loom large.

630 days. Immediately after the Boks won the World Cup in November 2019, Rassie Erasmus told anyone who would listen that the South Africans had 630 days to prepare for the Tests against the Lions.

He gave the impression that South African rugby would need each and every one of those 630 days to ensure the national team peaked at exactly the right time.

As a pandemic-ravaged 2020 draws to close, that figure should be viewed in a more concerning light. Those 630 days may separate the Boks’ last Test against England in Yokohama on 2 November 2019 and their next official international, against the Lions at Soccer City on 24 July 2021. Unless a couple of ‘warm-up’ Tests are organised in the buildup, the Boks will head into that all-important series with no idea about where they stand.

Jacques Nienaber, who will struggle to shrug off the tag of ‘new Bok coach’ until his team takes the field, summed it up best when he said that a side cannot improve unless the players are competing on a regular basis.

Senior statesman Duane Vermeulen, never one to sugarcoat the unsavoury facts, said the momentum generated by winning the World Cup has been lost and that the group was ‘starting from scratch’.

It certainly felt like a new beginning when the local South African competition started on 10 October. The next important step may be taken when the top franchises join the Pro16 – which could happen as early as next March.

Super Rugby Unlocked, and subsequently the Currie Cup, will provide the top South African players with an opportunity to regain their match fitness after nearly seven months in limbo. It will not, however, prepare them for the pressure and intensity of international rugby.

The gulf between domestic and international rugby was made clear when the first two Bledisloe Cup fixtures were played in October. New Zealand’s top players impressed throughout Super Rugby Aotearoa – the first rugby competition to receive the green light after the global lockdown.

It took some time for those players to adjust, though, when they came up against a combative Wallabies side in Wellington. On that occasion, the All Blacks were more than fortunate to escape with a 16-16 draw, although they showed more hunger and intensity to win the following fixture 27-7 in Auckland.

That said, it was plain to see how far ahead the New Zealanders and Australians were in terms of fitness and preparation. While the Bledisloe Cup clashes played out at a furious pace, the Super Rugby Unlocked matches in South Africa were plagued by errors and a lack of intensity.

It’s fair to say that any Bok side would have struggled to match their Australasian counterparts at this stage of the schedule. It’s yet another reason the decision to withdraw the Boks from the Rugby Championship should be lauded. As a result, the players will have more time to condition their bodies for battle and South Africa’s stellar yet hard-won reputation will remain intact.

South Africa’s withdrawal has robbed fans of one of the world’s marquee match-ups – the Boks versus the All Blacks. It’s believed that these epic battles will be staged less frequently in future as South Africa contemplates a more permanent pivot to the northern hemisphere and possibly a split from Sanzaar.

South Africa’s top franchises will compete in a Pro16 competition from 2021 rather than in a restructured – and frankly, watered-down – Super Rugby tournament. The move to bring the Boks into an expanded Seven Nations is gathering momentum. As a result, the rivalry between South Africa and New Zealand may play out in the form of a three-match tour staged once every two years.

For now, South African rugby must concern itself with preparing the players to peak against the Lions in 2021. Player management will be crucial to success: on the one hand coaches must bring personnel up to speed in fitness and understanding law variations, and on the other ensure key personnel aren’t played into the ground before the games that truly matter next July.

In an ideal world, the national coaches would work together with their franchise counterparts – and all would reap the benefits. Some of the franchise coaches, of course, will be targeting fixtures against the Lions as an opportunity to make a statement.

Jake White, formerly of the Brumbies and now with the Bulls, recently said he counts the Brumbies’ 14-12 win over the Lions in 2013 as one of his career highlights. The best-case scenario would be the franchises scoring victories in the early stages of the 2021 tour and softening the Lions up ahead of the Tests series.

Managing the players in this unprecedented situation may be easier said than done, though. After seven months, the players will have had Super Rugby Unlocked, the Currie Cup and thereafter, the Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers could be in the Pro 16.

As if that weren’t complicated enough, Erasmus and Nienaber will need to campaign for the release of key Boks who are playing in Europe and Japan. Having suffered substantial financial losses over the past year, these clubs are more reluctant than ever to release foreign players to their national teams outside of the designated international windows.

In late October, the British & Irish Lions confirmed a warm-up fixture against Japan ahead of their tour to South Africa in 2021, but then the English media revealed that the clubs would not part with their Test players at a key stage of the domestic season. It’s a decision that will hurt the Boks as well as the Lions, given that so many top South Africans are based in that part of the world.

In the past, when Tests have been staged in South Africa during the June international window, the Bok coach has often favoured local players for the first game of a series and then phased in the overseas contingent from the second match onwards.

In 2021, however, the overseas contingent will be substantial, and one wonders if Nienaber could afford to leave out the likes of Handré Pollard, Cheslin Kolbe, Faf de Klerk, Lood de Jager, Eben Etzebeth and Willie le Roux from his staring side for a first Test that will set the tone for the rest of the series.

The absence of these senior players for the planning phase of the campaign could also prove problematic. Last year, all the players, regardless of where they played their rugby, were available for 20 straight weeks.

They were conditioned and prepared in that period to peak in the latter stages of the World Cup. Erasmus and Nienaber won’t have the opportunity to build like that before the Lions series.

Many may believe that the decision to withdraw the Boks from the Rugby Championship will allow the players a fair opportunity to regain form and fitness. They may see this as a preferable buildup to the Lions series next year.

And yet the challenges of preparing the team for this unique and important battle remain significant. The creativity of coaches like Erasmus and Nienaber – a duo known for lateral thinking and problem solving – will be put to the test like never before.

Unless SA Rugby can negotiate the release of several big names from overseas clubs and arrange a few international friendlies in early 2021, the Bok side that features in the early stages of that series may be dangerously undercooked.

*This feature first appeared in the latest SA Rugby magazine, now on sale!

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Craig Lewis