Feature: How SA teams are preparing for move north

The head coaches of the Lions, Sharks and Stormers as well as Bulls captain Duane Vermeulen look forward to a monumental year in the latest SA Rugby magazine.

It’s going to be a demanding and immense season for South African rugby, writes JON CARDINELLI in our February issue.

The four franchises will feature in a northern ‘Rainbow Cup’ from April. Three of the franchises will play against the British & Irish Lions in July. From October, all four teams are expected to join the Pro16 tournament from the outset. How far along are you with your preparations for these events?

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JOHN DOBSON (Stormers): We approached Super Rugby Unlocked and the Currie Cup with the intent to win. That said, we’ve worked hard to develop our gameplan with the middle and long term in mind.

IVAN VAN ROOYEN (Lions): Last year was challenging on a number of fronts. There have been a lot of moving parts and delays, and even as late as December we were still waiting for confirmation of the dates for certain fixtures in 2021. But we have already put some plans in place.

SEAN EVERITT (Sharks): There are several former Cheetahs and Kings players in our ranks who know what it’s like to play up north, but as coaches we’re a bit in the dark. There will be some logistical challenges in terms of where we’ll train and where we’ll stay. Director of rugby Rassie Erasmus and Bok coach Jacques Nienaber will guide us on that, as they have a lot of experience having worked in that part of the world [with Munster in 2016 and 2017].

DUANE VERMEULEN (Vodacom Bulls): If you haven’t adjusted your gameplan by now, you won’t make the necessary changes before the northern hemisphere competition starts. After the Currie Cup final in January, there’s only a short break before we will enter that tournament [the Rainbow Cup, which includes the 12 northern hemisphere teams] … I can’t speak for the other franchises, but at the Bulls we’ve been working at adapting our game. We still have a way to go.

The 2021-22 Pro16 tournament will be staged across South Africa’s summer and the northern hemisphere’s winter. How will that affect your gameplan?

JD: You can’t just have a gameplan tailored to South African conditions. Territory and set-piece dominance will be so important when you’re trying to prevail on a wet night in Wales, Scotland or Ireland. At WP, we’ve been investing a lot in our kicking game since the lockdown was lifted in September.

SE: You could have a situation where you’re playing in the searing heat of Durban and then in the sub-zero temperatures of the UK only seven days later. Teams will have to be versatile and switch gameplans from one match to the next. We might have a more ball-in-hand approach when we play at home and rely more on our set piece and kicking game up north.

IvR: We’ve had a number meetings with coaches based in Europe. It seems like defence, tactical kicking and the set piece are the priority up north. We’ve been phasing that in during the Currie Cup. While we will have to adjust according to the conditions, I don’t think we should change what’s in our DNA. It’s about getting the balance right. A side like Leinster has an outstanding kicking game, but they use all their running and kicking skills to put defending sides under pressure.

DV: We’re fortunate in that Jake White, Arno Botha, Morne Steyn, Marcel van der Merwe and me have all worked in that part of the world before. We know what to expect in terms of the conditions and the mindset. Over there, the local teams don’t play any rugby in their own half. There’s a lot more kicking.

How will the ability to switch between different approaches in the Pro16 dictate the makeup of your playing squad?

JD: Building a squad that can perform across the competitions in 2021will be very important. That’s why we’ve tried to give more youngsters an opportunity in the Currie Cup to prepare them for what comes next. There will be other tournaments such as the U20 competition, the Varsity Cup and the SA Cup to bring players up to speed. We will be monitoring performances across those tournaments with the future in mind.

SE: You need personnel who can excel in both sets of conditions. The type of player who is suited to Super Rugby may not be suited to a competition in the northern hemisphere. Recruitment and development before the Pro16 will be crucial. For example, in the past we may have favoured a more mobile prop for the pace and intensity of Super Rugby. Now we’ve got to take into account that set-piece specialists are key in the northern hemisphere. It’s a real battle at the scrums and lineouts in that part of the world.

South Africa’s senior squads are limited to 45 players. Are there enough senior personnel to cope with what is an unforgiving 2021 schedule and a versatile approach?

JD: It’s a helluva lot of rugby. I can’t see how we’re going to deal with that workload. In terms of our Springboks, it’s a concern when you think that they will go into the Lions series, then straight into the Rugby Championship, then into a full Pro16 tournament from October onwards. The Boks can’t play every game for us and we will need a deep squad to cope with the player management challenges.

IvR: Between the Currie Cup, Pro16 and other competitions, a South African player could feature in more than 40 matches in 2021. It’s a big workload and I suppose each of the teams will have to consider how they are going to manage their players across all the games and tournaments. Rotation will be essential.

SE: You will end up using a lot of players outside your senior squad, namely the younger guys competing a tier or two below. You will have to ensure those other players are prepared for the challenge, though. In the past, I have given youngsters an opportunity in Super Rugby with the future in mind. It’s going to be very tough, however, for the younger players to come straight out of the junior divisions to compete in a tournament like the Pro16 – especially the front rankers and locks, who perhaps haven’t had the time to develop and adjust to the physical demands. Suddenly they will find themselves thrust into a contest with seasoned veterans who thrive in a set-piece battle on a wet night.

How do the European teams cope with this player management? Some of the top clubs boast a host of internationals, yet compete in various tournaments such as the Pro14 and the Champions Cup.

JD: The Pro16 is not the final destination for us and it shouldn’t be long before we join the Champions Cup. We want to see the big European teams playing here in South Africa – that’s what is going to fill the stadiums. That’s the product the powers that be are after.

IvR: If you consider the European model, the top teams seem to have 38 to 45 players in their senior squads. They have a further 10 to 15 academy players available. So it’s a similar system to what we’re using. In Europe, those academy players will play a fair bit over the course of the season. Teams have decide when they are going to play their best players. At a club like Munster, for example, the international players will focus on Test matches, the Champions Cup games and the big Pro14 matches. They won’t play week after week in the Pro14. It’s hard to predict when you will need your best players, though, as the situation can change over the course of the season.

The Pro16 could be a stepping stone to the Champions Cup. What would it mean for you and your team to compete in that tournament?

IvR: We all speak about those dream clashes between the southern and northern hemisphere clubs. How great would it be to see Montpellier playing at Ellis Park, or for us to take on Exeter at Sandy Park or somewhere like Twickenham?

SE: The Champions Cup is right up there with international rugby. You have to qualify for that tournament via the Pro16, but there are a lot of benefits – and the financial boost could certainly help the franchises in South Africa. Again, it’s something we’ve chatted about. Playing at famous venues like Twickenham, and against major English and French clubs, will be a game-changing experience.

The hype around the Test series between the Boks and Lions continues to build. The tour games, however, will represent a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the coaches and players at the local franchises. Have your preparations already begun?

JD: The first game I ever saw was between the Boks and Lions at Newlands in 1974. It made a big impression on me. Looking ahead to our game this July – the players will be going all out to make that opportunity count. For me as a coach? It will be goosebump stuff. We’re not sure yet if our Boks will be available for that game. If they’re not, a host of younger players could have the chance to make a name for themselves. It’s going to be a fantastic occasion in front of a packed Cape Town Stadium.

SE: Lions tours are massive attractions. There’s already a buzz at the Shark Tank about the game that will be played here. The youngsters in particular are excited to measure themselves against the best players in the northern hemisphere.

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Craig Lewis