Several key Springboks head into the Rugby Championship in desperate need of a rest. The Super Rugby franchises are once again to blame, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Which South African rugby player has racked up the most game time in 2014? The answer may surprise you.
Duane Vermeulen played 1,221 minutes out of a possible 1,280 for the Stormers. The Bok No 8 was on the park for all but 13 minutes of the four-game international series in June. In total, Vermeulen has a reading of 1,528 on the odometer. And it's only August.
In a previous interview, renowned sports scientist Tim Noakes told me that too much rugby is played nowadays, and that top players were expected to shoulder unrealistic workloads.
Noakes said that in an ideal world that valued Test rugby as an elite product and thus player welfare, the game time for top players would range between 1,600 and 1,800 minutes per year. More than that, said Noakes, and you'd run the risk of a dip in performance or a fatigue-induced injury.
The reason for the range, of course, is because workloads are position-specific. A winger, for example, could contribute in the region of 1,800 minutes. A tight forward would be at the other end of the scale.
Consider that Vermeulen is a No 8, and an abrasive one at that. He is already edging towards the 1,600-mark, and not a minute of the most important tournament has been played.
Some may look at these numbers and declare that Vermeulen deserves a break, and that he needs one now. Unfortunately, it's too late for that, as the Boks need Vermeulen to win the Rugby Championship.
Bok coach Heyneke Meyer will fall back on what he's been saying since 2012: 'It is not the job of the Bok coach to manage players' game time'. Meyer is absolutely right. This is the elite level. This is where it matters most, not just for the individual players, but for South African rugby. In the years between World Cups, the priority should be the Rugby Championship title, rather than the Super Rugby trophy.
Unfortunately, the tail wags the dog in South Africa. There is no central contracting system, and Meyer's pleas for better player management during Super Rugby are routinely ignored. This happened in 2012 and 2013, and now on the eve of the 2014 Rugby Championship, Meyer finds himself in the same position again.
Vermeulen is but one who will travel into the danger zone over the next few weeks. Meyer has no choice but to play him, as these are the most important Tests of the season.
It's a difficult situation, as Meyer can't afford to lose Vermeulen. He not only ticks all the boxes required of a international loose forward, but is the only specialist No 8 in the squad. Willem Alberts can play No 8 if required, although he is but another who has played too much rugby in 2014.
The Sharks advanced to the 2014 Super Rugby semi-finals, and did so thanks to their Bok-laden pack. Several of those players will start for the Boks in the coming Tests, but they may struggle to perform to the required standard, or indeed survive the whole tournament without sustaining a fatigue-related injury.
In total (for the Sharks and Boks), Bismarck du Plessis has played 1,459 minutes in 2014. Alberts has been on the park for 1,451, and Jannie du Plessis for 1,214.
The Sharks and the Stormers are not only to blame. The Bulls planned to rest Victor Matfield for the duration of their overseas tour, but changed tack when several senior players broke down with injury.
As a result, Matfield played for the bulk of the Super Rugby season. Even though the Bulls' campaign ended after the league stage, Matfield amassed more than 1,000 minutes of game time. As the interim Bok captain during the June series, he played all but nine minutes over four games. In total, Matfield has played 1,328 minutes in 2014.
Lest we forget, Matfield is not a young man. He has played some brilliant rugby since making his return, but that does not change the fact that he needs to be managed carefully. And to reiterate Meyer's point, he needs to be managed at Super Rugby level.
Meyer will be hoping that these key players don't break down. Vermeulen and Alberts are especially vital to the Boks' gainline ambitions, while Matfield is the only No 5 in the current squad.
It was confirmed on Tuesday that Matfield had sustained a knee cartilage injury. He will miss the first Test against Argentina. Hopefully he will be fit for the big clashes against Australia and New Zealand.
Du Plessis will alternate with Adriaan Strauss at hooker, but South African supporters should hope that the Sharks captain has sufficient gas in the tank when the Boks tackle the All Blacks. The Boks need Du Plessis to be fit and firing for clashes of that nature.
Meyer has said on more than one occasion that player fitness is a burning issue. The problem in South African rugby is that elite players are primed to peak in Super Rugby, rather than in the tournament that matters. This much was evident in the 2013 Rugby Championship decider when the All Blacks put pay to the Boks' title ambitions during the final 20 minutes.
Meyer hasn't been done any favours in the buildup to this year's tournament. If the Boks go on to win the Rugby Championship from here, it will be in spite of the South African rugby system, not because of it.
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