A central contracting system would solve South Africa's player management problems, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The Vodacom Super Rugby franchises aren't complying with Saru's request to rest and manage top Springboks. Is anybody surprised? Did anybody really think this plan would work?
You can understand where Saru is coming from. It's a World Cup year, and the best players should be managed to peak at the global tournament. Everything should be geared towards ensuring the Boks are at their physical and mental best for a potential final at Twickenham on 31 October.
Having said that, you can also understand why the franchises would look out for their respective interests. They are independent entities, and there are consequences if they fail to achieve their goals.
Super Rugby is an elite competition, and the margins are small. You can understand why the franchises would want the best players, namely those with international experience, to play as much as possible.
Sharks coach Gary Gold said recently that he is committed to helping Saru and the Boks in the buildup to the World Cup. The statement was made in response to an allegation that the Sharks aren't complying with Saru's request, at least not to the full extent.
Gold said he would give the top players a break at some point, just not right now. And again, if you look at the matter from a franchise point of view, the Sharks could not afford to meet Saru's request. Gold's statement was made in the buildup to the round six game against the Chiefs, a game the Sharks desperately needed to win after losing three of their first five matches.
But those who believe the Boks should come first also have reason to feel aggrieved. To put it bluntly, who cares if the Sharks, Bulls, or Stormers win the Super Rugby competition this year? Is it really worth playing the Boks into the ground now when this course of action will compromise the national side's chances at the World Cup?
Of course not. Indeed, it could also be said that if top players are managed better in the years between World Cups, there would be fewer fatigue-induced injuries and the Boks would pose a bigger threat in the Rugby Championship.
So who is really at fault here?
The real issue is that there is a disconnect between the Boks and the franchises. In an ideal world, all the franchises would be working together to ensure the Boks peak in the international season. A larger group of players would be contracted by the governing body. Saru would demand rather than request that these players be managed smartly over the course of the Super Rugby competition.
This is not a revolutionary idea. New Zealand rugby have long benefited from a central contracting system. They got it wrong when they demanded a host of All Blacks be rested in the buildup to the 2007 World Cup. But since then, they have got it right more often than not, with individual players managed over the course of the Super Rugby season.
New Zealand has struck the right balance in terms of player management. Since 2008, they have won three Super Rugby titles, five Tri-Nations/Rugby Championship titles, and a World Cup. That is some return. They must be doing something right to succeed at both Super Rugby and Test level.
A central contracting system would help Saru manage its assets a lot better. Of course, they would do well to ensure player-specific management plans are formulated. A 'one-size-fits-all' programme is not the answer.
Players in certain positions are more susceptible to injury than others. It follows that a player, say a loose forward, who is involved at more rucks and is exposed to more collisions, should play fewer consecutive games than an outside back.
Common sense should prevail in the management of players returning from injuries. Last year, Saru pulled all of the contracted Boks out of the Currie Cup. This robbed somebody like Damian de Allende, who had not played much in the Rugby Championship due to an injury, of a chance to find form before the Boks' tour to Europe.
You would also think a player returning from a lengthy injury lay-off would need game time more than rest during the first seven or eight weeks of Super Rugby. If a player missed the bulk of the 2014 season due to a serious injury, surely he needs an extended run when returning to the playing field in 2015. It wouldn't make sense to rest him after five weeks, just when he is starting to find form.
Again, you can understand why Saru would initiate a blanket ban on contracted Boks in the Currie Cup. Players need to be protected after a long season that includes Super Rugby, June Tests and the Rugby Championship. Most need to be wrapped in cotton wool before a demanding November tour to Europe.
Of course, it's easier for Saru to say nobody can play than to make exceptions. If De Allende was allowed to feature for Western Province in the 2014 Currie Cup play-offs and gain some form, then the other big unions would demand their Boks be released as well.
It could be said that Saru has taken a small step in the right direction. It's hoped the franchises will rest top players as much as possible over the next three months. CEO Jurie Roux is correct when he says this will improve the situation and that there should be fewer fatigue-related injuries come the World Cup in September.
But it shouldn't be viewed as the final solution. South African rugby needs to implement a central contracting system that sees Saru dictating the number of games played by each Bok.
It's possible to do so without compromising the top Super Rugby sides' drive for a title, as the New Zealanders have proved. Until this system is in place, South African rugby will continue to wrestle with this issue and the Boks will continue to underperform at the business end of each season.
Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images