Player management a priority

The Springboks need to focus on player management rather than results in the five matches leading up to the World Cup. JON CARDINELLI reports.

What is a Rugby Championship title worth in a World Cup year? Not a whole lot.

Ask the All Blacks teams of 1999, 2003 and 2007, as well as the Wallabies side of 2011. All four of those teams fired in the Sanzar tournament and claimed the southern hemisphere crown. And yet all four fell short at the subsequent World Cup tournaments.

Player management is paramount in a World Cup year. Everything is geared towards ensuring the best players are fit, and at the peak of their physical and mental powers, for that tournament. If it means resting players for large periods of Vodacom Super Rugby and the Rugby Championship, then so be it.

At the same time, coaches are mindful of the need to take some momentum into the World Cup. Take the 2011 Tri-Nations tournament for example. It was clear from the outset of that competition that both the Boks and All Blacks had a greater goal in mind. The best combinations played in the home matches, while the second-stringers were sent on tour.

Heyneke Meyer would be wise to follow suit over the next five weeks. The big question is when to back his best available side, and when to wrap the stars in cotton wool.

When analysing the current injury list, it would appear this decision has been made for Meyer already. So many of the Boks’ key players are either sidelined or battling their way back from injuries.

Ideally, the best combination would have played in the Rugby Championship Test against New Zealand at Ellis Park on 25 July. Another win, or even a strong performance, against the All Blacks before the World Cup would have done wonders for the Boks’ confidence.

Now it seems likely many of the best players may only be ready, or at their physical best, for the two Tests against Argentina. This will, of course, present Meyer with another dilemma.

Those players will need game time before the World Cup, but then the battles against Argentina are typically scrappy and brutal. Will he push his best players to feature in those games? Meyer will need to weigh up the risks and rewards of such a selection.

The Bok coach will have a lot more on his mind than results over the next two months. Some big names in Jean de Villiers and Duane Vermeulen will be coming back from injury, but Meyer has to plan for a worse-case scenario in which De Villiers and Vermeulen don’t recover sufficiently or in time for the World Cup. The same is true of Fourie du Preez.

This will involve giving other players opportunities. And while Victor Matfield may seem a natural successor to De Villiers, Meyer has to be mindful of pushing the veteran lock too much over the next two months, especially since there's so little quality in reserve at No 5.

Meyer, and indeed all South African rugby supporters, will want the Boks to win the next five games and ride that momentum into the World Cup. However, it may be more important to the Boks’ world title ambitions that the top players are managed carefully in the buildup to the global tournament, even if that management compromises results in the Rugby Championship.

Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

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Jon Cardinelli