Bok coaches raise Rugby Champs concerns

Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber says there are still a few challenges left to consider before they can confirm their participation in the Rugby Championship.  DYLAN JACK reports.

Sanzaar last week confirmed the schedule for the 2020 edition of the Rugby Championship, which will be held over a shortened six-week period in Australia.

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However, South Africa’s participation in the event has yet to be confirmed.

The chances of the Springboks being allowed to defend their title depend on the relaxation of the government’s current ban on international sporting participation and the outcome of assessments of high-performance and player-welfare issues.

During a virtual media conference on Monday, Springbok coach Nienaber and SA Rugby director of rugby Rassie Erasmus explained the challenges currently faced in getting the Springboks ready to play in the tournament.

‘There are a few things that we have to consider,’ Nienaber said. ‘The first thing is that international sporting participation, there is no green light on that from the government currently.

‘The other factors would be around the isolation period that we have to go into when we get to Australia. We have been on a call with them weekly. The isolation period is not going to be as strict as in New Zealand. But the detail around it, like what recovery facilities we are allowed to use, hasn’t been spelled out yet. We are waiting for [Australia’s] government to give us guidelines in terms of what we can do when we actually get there.

‘The last thing is about the availability of our overseas-based players. Currently, World Rugby has obviously put out regulation nine, which allows them to play with us. But there has been a big pushback from the English clubs. That would be problematic for us as we would get those players a bit later. That has a massive influence on the isolation period.’

Erasmus went into further detail over the overseas-based players issue. The playoffs for the 2019-20 Premiership season are set to take place between 10 and 24 October and the English clubs are understandably reluctant to release their star players.

‘The English clubs will be in their semi-finals and final and we haven’t got a clear answer over when their players will be available,’ Erasmus said. ‘The French clubs are aligned with us.

‘Arriving in Australia, you have to arrive at the same time and it will be a massive squad because you have to be there for eight weeks and quarantine is two weeks. You would have to take four looseheads, tightheads and hookers. If you get an injury in any of those key positions, the player who comes in [as a replacement] has to go into quarantine for two weeks. So, you simply have to take a massive squad.

‘That makes it problematic – not that we can’t overcome it – if the overseas-based players only arrive two weeks after us because of the Premiership final. Then when we start playing Argentina in the first two weeks, they will still be in quarantine and will be without high-performance support such as doctors or physios. They will physically stay on their own.’

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Erasmus explained that the Bok coaches would ideally like the players to have around five games, or 500 minutes, under their belt before they fly to Australia, but it could be difficult to get the South Africa-based players to that stage.

‘Because we were in a really hard lockdown, we have to get five to six games into the players before it is safe for them. These players will be away from home for so long, living in a bubble. They played last week in Pretoria, this week in Cape Town and then next week they will play at home but then will be away for eight weeks – so they will be away from home for nine weeks and then when they get back they will have to quarantine.

‘The players who have close to 400 or 500 minutes – which we need to be competitive and safe – are those that are based overseas. But even the player with the most amount of minutes there only has just over 400 minutes. Internally we are working out how we get the boys to that state.’

A potential solution could lie in getting the 46-man Springbok squad to play internal matches against each other during their quarantine period in Australia.

However, Erasmus said that the solution would have its own challenges, with a greater risk of injury to key players.

‘We are trying to find solutions for what we can do. If we are lucky to get players who have over 200 minutes, you probably can during those two weeks play against each other because you will have a squad of 46.

‘But if you take two teams of 23 and play against each other in two matches, you will get 160 more minutes which bumps it up to a total of 360, which is almost there. But there won’t be a referee, the intensity might be more because they are playing for spots. When you play a match, there might be a risk of 15 players getting injured. Now, in those matches, that risk is so much more, because 30 of your players are on the field. The risk is higher, not only because there are more of them on the field, but because more of them were under a strict lockdown here and have less than 200 minutes under their belt. It makes sense, it is one of the solutions we are looking at, but there is a lot of problems with it, which we are trying to work around.’

Erasmus said the Springbok coaches were hoping to have an answer over their Rugby Championship participation by 10 October.

‘Practically, on the ground, us as coaches, it will probably have to be done by 10 October. After that 46 players will have to go into a camp, do a bit of training, isolation, get tested before we get on to the plane. The arrival date there is 18 October. We would let them play the Currie Cup matches on the 10th, gather together on the 11th and then get on to the plane and quarantine for two weeks. That decision will be made for us, but it can’t be later than after the last game on the 10th.’

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Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images

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Dylan Jack