JON CARDINELLI looks at four boxes South African rugby must tick in the lead-up to the 2019 World Cup.
SUPER RUGBY WINS OVERSEAS
Springbok players should be looking to build up form and confidence in the 2019 Super Rugby tournament. Good performances and results in Australasia, Argentina and Asia will do wonders for the national side’s spirits ahead of a World Cup that will be played away from home.
The respective away records don’t make for encouraging reading, though. In 2018, the South African Super Rugby teams combined for just two wins in 16 games played in Australasia, four straight failures in Argentina, and a zero from two return in Asia.
While the Boks’ victory in Wellington was a triumph in isolation, Erasmus’ charges finished the 2018 Test season with five losses on the road. Overall, the Boks have lost 15 of their 21 away games since the last World Cup.
Faf de Klerk made a successful comeback to Test rugby in 2018, while Erasmus gave Ivan van Zyl and Embrose Papier a taste of international rugby with the aim of developing depth ahead of the World Cup. It would appear as if this trio is in line to travel to Japan next September.
What is the contingency plan, however, if one of the three breaks down with a serious injury? And will Erasmus look overseas for a more experienced option – possibly Cobus Reinach – if his first-choice No 9 in De Klerk is ruled out?
Erasmus will be hoping that De Klerk makes it through the European season unscathed. Both Papier and Van Zyl need to be managed carefully by the Bulls – the former is in dire need of exposure after starting just three games in the 2018 Super Rugby competition. Ultimately, the Bok coach, who will assist the Bulls’ coaches, will want Papier and Van Zyl fit and available for the global tournament.
Who will travel to the World Cup in the event of an injury? This question should be answered in the coming Super Rugby tournament. Louis Schreuder toured Europe with the Boks in November, while Cameron Wright was in the wider training group earlier in the year. Ross Cronjé and Nic Groom, who has committed to the Lions, will also be looking to stake their claim for higher honours.
All that said, Erasmus is not spoiled for choice at present. It remains to be seen if these players will give him the right kind of headache ahead of the World Cup.
The Bok coach is routinely hammered on the point of transformation in the buildup to a global tournament, and unfairly so. In the wake of the 2015 World Cup, then SA Rugby president Regan Hoskins blamed the franchises for not playing their part and ultimately compromising the national side’s drive to transform.
While some of the franchises have worked hard to develop players of colour since 2016, a couple others have dragged their heels. Again, this hasn’t helped the Boks’ quest to reach their targets. The national side broke all sorts of transformation records in 2018 but fell short of the 45% requirement.
All six of the franchises will need to improve in this department in 2019. The Bulls and Lions haven’t fared well in this area in recent years, and may be hard-pressed to field a side that is 50% black on a regular basis.
Pieter-Steph du Toit, Siya Kolisi and Handré Pollard played a lot of rugby for their respective franchises and the Boks in 2018. Faf de Klerk and Willie le Roux were overexposed by their English clubs and to an extent the Boks. Franco Mostert’s long season got a lot longer when he linked up with Gloucester after South Africa’s’ tour to Europe.
Erasmus will have little say in how the overseas players are managed. The Boks will cope if Mostert breaks down with injury in the coming months – such is their depth at lock – but they may struggle if De Klerk is crocked. While they have some exciting young fullback options, none boast the experience of Le Roux.
One would expect Du Toit, Kolisi and Pollard to receive some form of rest in the coming months. Over-exposure in 2019 will increase the likelihood of serious injury – especially after a taxing 2018 season. Even if they avoid injuries, they may run the risk of physical and mental burnout ahead of the tournament that matters most.
As mentioned earlier in this article, the franchises may have other reasons – the drive to win abroad and meet transformation targets – to call on the services of these key players. However, they should – in theory – have the depth to cope with the absence of two or three players for a few weeks over the course of the Super Rugby tournament.
In a perfect world, the franchises would be managing the top players to peak in the international season. At the very least, we should hope that these players are managed with the Boks in mind in a World Cup year.
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