• SA rugby prospects: All you need to know

    With various permutations to consider and competitions undergoing review, we wrap up the latest ‘need-to-know’ information about the Boks’ prospects and future plans for SA Rugby.

    As the Covid-19 pandemic and resulting travel restrictions have shaken up the rugby calendar, there is plenty of confusion over South Africa’s future in Vodacom Super Rugby and the immediate road forward for SA Rugby.

    This is mostly after New Zealand Rugby outlined plans to enter its five Super Rugby sides into a new competition from 2021, which is set to exclude any South African sides and not involve Argentina’s Jaguares, which has seemingly thrown the Sanzaar alliance into doubt.

    However, as SA Rugby chief executive Jurie Roux explained, Super Rugby is by no means dead and the Sanzaar alliance is very much intact.

    Below we attempt to provide some clarity into what the immediate future is for South African rugby and its prospects for 2021.

    RETURN TO PLAY

    The immediate concern for Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber and SA Rugby director of rugby Rassie Erasmus will be ensuring a smooth return to play for South African players.

    The Springboks are set to play in a bio-bubble Rugby Championship in New Zealand in November. Before that, a competitive domestic competition with the South African Super Rugby and PRO14 franchises is planned for either the last weekend of August or first or second weekend of September.

    Nienaber explained that there are three phases that Springbok players will have to go through if they hope to be competitive in the Rugby Championship – given that Australia and New Zealand are both at least a month into their own respective domestic tournaments.

    Phase one involves the return-to-play aspect. The very first focus will be on getting the players back on to the field in training and ensuring they are properly conditioned to lower the risk of any long-term injuries in a domestic tournament.

    ‘We are back in training in small groups this week and this is planned for three weeks and if we get permission and government is happy, we will move to contact training for at least a month. We will submit that request to government and if they are happy, then we will carry on,’ Nienaber said. ‘That’s for the next seven weeks, and that is going to be critical, to get players accustomed to exercise. You know, our players have not had access to gyms etc. That is phase one.’

    PHASE TWO: DOMESTIC TOURNAMENT

    Phase two involves the actual domestic tournament in South Africa. Nienaber says the tournament needs to ensure that each team plays at least six matches in order for the players to get properly match ready.

    ‘We then want players to play at least six matches – in whatever competition there is. This is the first block. Get them on the field, get them accustomed to rugby training and then to rugby for a month, and then six matches.’

    Part of phase two also involves the logistics of getting players to New Zealand for the Rugby Championship. The Springboks will have to go into an isolation period after arriving in New Zealand and will have to structure their training periods around that. That will all depend on what the situation in New Zealand is with regard to the pandemic and their government’s regulations around it.

    PHASE THREE: OVERSEAS-BASED PLAYERS

    Phase three involves getting European-based Springboks released from their respective clubs for the Rugby Championship.

    Premiership Rugby had voiced its frustrations last week at World Rugby’s recommendation to stage the Rugby Championship between 7 November and 12 December and to push the Test window further into December to accommodate the backlog of internationals because of the Covid-19 restrictions.

    Because the 2020-21 Premiership season is set to begin on 20 November, English clubs would therefore be without their southern-hemisphere players for one week of Premiership fixtures and the opening weekend of the European Champions Cup.

    However, it appears that the Premiership have decided against opposing the new proposed calendar, but insist they will block any move to make it a permanent change.

    2020 RUGBY CHAMPIONSHIP

    As previously stated, the Rugby Championship is scheduled for November and at this stage, plans are for it to be hosted in a bio-bubble in New Zealand.

    However, Nienaber has hinted that if there is not enough time to prepare for the Championship, the Springboks may not take part in the tournament.

    ‘We can’t just let the Springboks and the country down – get there underprepared and then lose 57-0 again. That’s also not fair of us. You have a responsibility to your country, to the brand, to the Boks and the players, to make sure we don’t expose them to Test rugby if they are not ready.

    ‘If we can’t play six matches then I don’t think we will go. It’s just too great a burden on the players. On my side – on the field – that would be a bridge too far.’

    2021 Super Rugby: What are SA Rugby’s options?

    As both New Zealand and Australia are planning their own domestic tournaments, South Africa has every right to do the same.

    The Pumas, Griquas, Cheetahs and Kings could even be included if, by that stage, the latter teams still aren’t able to travel internationally for the PRO14.

    New Zealand’s government has indicated that its borders may only open in May 2021, making Super Rugby in its current format impossible. However, depending on the situation, a crossover tournament may follow. It is all very up in the air at this stage.

    PRO16: What about the Cheetahs and Kings?

    South Africa has also been linked with a move north into an expanded PRO14. Reports indicate that as the competition can only expand to 16 teams, the four Super Rugby franchises would join and the Cheetahs and Kings would therefore be left out.

    However, Roux said that the Cheetahs and Kings will very much be in charge of their own destinies and will have a say in staying in the PRO14.

    ‘Once we’ve actually negotiated on how that will work, only then decisions will follow on who participates where and in what format.

    ‘Constitutionally that is the decision of the general council. The executive cannot unilaterally make a decision on the participation of the Cheetahs, the Kings, the Bulls, the Lions, the Sharks and the Stormers. That is by constitution a decision that the general council must make.

    ‘The Free State will have a very big say in who plays internationally, so will the Kings, and so will the other twelve teams that are part of the general council.’

    What about the Sanzaar alliance?

    As both Roux and Sanzaar chief executive Andy Marinos have reaffirmed, the Sanzaar joint venture is still very much intact at this point.

    ‘In terms of Sanzaar’s joint venture agreement, there is a very legal agreement in place and you have to act within it,’ Roux said. ‘If you are in breach of that joint venture agreement, you make yourself liable for legal action from the other parties.’

    Marinos has outlined South Africa’s importance to Sanzaar in terms of viewership and competitiveness.

    ‘South Africa have always and continue to be the biggest contributor in terms of eyeballs and viewership and attendances to the Super Rugby and Rugby Championship games. They have been a very powerful partner at the table, not only from a value point of view but also from a competitiveness point of view.

    ‘If you speak to anybody that has any knowledge of rugby from Australia or  New Zealand, having the Springboks coming over to play is critically important to the development of their players. There is a long history – more so with New Zealand than Australia – between the two countries.’

    Photo: Daniel-Jayo/Getty-Images

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    Dylan Jack