An opportunity for domestic bliss

The Covid-19 crisis and the difficulty of travel has forced rugby nations to re-evaluate their local competitions, writes JEAN DE VILLIERS in the latest issue of SA Rugby magazine.

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The Covid-19 crisis has presented the game with a number of setbacks and challenges in recent months. At the same time, it has created opportunities that may not have arisen in normal circumstances.

Plans are afoot to reintroduce players to the game via local tournaments in countries around the world. New Zealand is staging a five-team domestic tournament. South Africa and other nations will follow suit as soon as the threat of infection has diminished and the players are conditioned for the challenge.

It must be frustrating for the South Africans to see the Kiwis getting a ‘head start’ on the new season. The New Zealanders will return to training first. They will be match-fit first. They will compete against one another well before the South African tournament commences. That will given them an edge – physically as well as mentally – ahead of any possible Test matches later in the year.

It will be interesting to see how much international rugby is played in 2020, though. While some countries have been given the green light to host sporting contests behind closed doors, it may be some time before we see Test or even Super Rugby teams crossing borders.

Travelling overseas is going to be extremely difficult with the quarantine protocols in place. I can’t see individuals self-isolating for two weeks and their resuming their preparations shortly before their first tour fixture. It’s too disruptive. When you start to think about other logistical problems, such as access to replacements in the event of serious injuries, you start to wonder if touring in these times is really worth it.

With those challenges in mind, it wouldn’t surprise me to see the focus shifting to local rugby for the first time in the professional era. We have a lot to be proud of in terms of our talent and brand of rugby. What better way to showcase all that than in a six-team domestic tournament? All the big names will be looking to prove a point in this competition. Fringe player who may have flown under the radar in previous seasons due to the surfeit of rugby on the go could also benefit from this exposure.

I’m looking forward to an all-South African tournament that will lend new meaning to the phrase ‘strength versus strength’. Having said that, player welfare must be a priority when assessing the conditions and ensuring that everyone enjoys a ‘preseason’ before the competition-proper.

There is only so much an individual can achieve when they are training in isolation. Players will need time to prepare themselves for the kind of contact they will experience on a weekly basis – especially spending several months away from the game. Teammates will need an opportunity to come together and build some synergy before playing in a competitive match. Rugby is a team game and you can’t expect a side to perform if it hasn’t enjoyed sufficient opportunity to train as a unit.

The domestic tournament will also allow the national coaches to have a closer look at all of the Springboks’ options. We don’t know how many Tests will be staged this year – and again player welfare and travel restrictions will determine when and if the Boks travel.

It may be a frustrating period for the coaches in that sense, but the silver lining is that they will have more time to assess potential combinations and put short- and long-term plans in place.

*De Villiers is a former Bok captain and World Cup winner, who earned 109 Test caps. He now serves as the head of philanthropy at Citadel. Follow him on Instagram @jean_devilliers.