Boks will need to beat the odds again

The Springboks will need to tackle a number of unusual challenges when Test rugby resumes, writes former captain JEAN DE VILLIERS in the latest SA Rugby magazine.

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South African rugby finds itself between a rock and hard place. The Springboks’ participation in the Rugby Championship – which is expected to be staged in Australia over November and December – will boost the union’s coffers and mitigate the players’ individual financial losses.

The same players, of course, will have precious little time to regain their match fitness in a domestic tournament before travelling for a gruelling and important six-week competition.

Is there a better alternative at this point? I don’t think so. The Rugby Championship must go ahead – providing there are no safety concerns. One cannot ignore the financial impact of the Covid-19 crisis, and how a tournament such as the Rugby Championship may alleviate the financial pressure felt by the respective unions.

Personally, I’d love to see international rugby returning and the world champions getting the opportunity to play – even if is some 12 months after they lifted the trophy in Japan.

I hope fans and stakeholders watch the next Rugby Championship tournament with the unique situation in mind, though. The Boks will go into that competition determined to win every game and to retain their title. They may not be in the same physical space as their Australian and New Zealand counterparts, though, who returned to action far earlier.

I also wonder how much time national coaches Jacques Nienaber and Rassie Erasmus will have with the players as a group before the first Test. It remains to be seen how many of the overseas-based players will be available from the outset. A large number of the players who comprised the 2019 World Cup-winning squad are scattered across Europe and Japan.

Nienaber could not have asked for a bigger challenge in his first game as head coach. At the start of the year, he and Erasmus would have planned for a season that included an incoming Test series in South Africa, a full Rugby Championship campaign, as well as an end-of-year tour to Europe.

They would have set short-term goals, such as winning Tests and retaining the Rugby Championship title, and long-term goals, such as blooding youngsters and preparing the side for the all-important series against the British & Irish Lions in 2021.

In light of circumstances, however, the Bok coaches will be forced to tick most of those boxes in the space of one Rugby Championship tournament on New Zealand soil. It’s a big ask, and I would hope that people temper their expectations accordingly.

I’m not suggesting the Boks can’t go abroad and win that tournament. But it’s important to note that, given their late return to rugby, they are less well placed to succeed than their Australasian counterparts.

On the other hand, we know how this group relishes a challenge. We saw how Erasmus and Nienaber turned this team around in 2018 and 2019.

What will count in the Boks’ favour is that most of the coaching staff have been retained since the 2019 World Cup. Players who won in New Zealand in 2018 and drew with the All Blacks in 2019 will be in the mix this year. 

Looking ahead, South Africa and the Lions are going to be hard-pressed to manage their top players with that big Test series in mind. Ideally you’d like to see these players managed in the buildup to such a big event – one that’s staged in South Africa once every 12 years.

With the sport reeling in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis, however, clubs and countries may be reluctant to rest their stars in the coming months and we could end up with a situation where a lot of players are exhausted by July 2021.

The management team that finds a solution to that problem, of course, will improve its chances of winning that series. Again, it’s encouraging to think about how this Bok team has beaten the odds in recent years, and how they will probably tackle the next obstacle with the same can-do attitude.

*This column first appeared in the latest SA Rugby magazine, now on sale!

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