One thing that the Springbok players in the forthcoming series against the British and Irish Lions will not be is overplayed and fatigued.
At least not those who are South African based.
The announcement last week that the organisers of the Lions tour are committed to staging it in South Africa over the window it was initially scheduled to be played in was followed quickly by the confirmation that the Rainbow Cup will be happening too. There was some doubt about that because of the logistical challenges faced by the PRO16 administrators in dealing with covid protocols and requirements, which remain fluid globally.
Perhaps there are still hoops that need jumping through because it was noticeable that while the derby phase of the South African schedule has been finalised and announced, the matches the local teams will play overseas haven’t been. We know when the South African sides will be in Europe, or when they are scheduled to be there, but we don’t know the specific teams they will be playing against and where.
The talk is still that the South African teams will all be housed and play at one venue, with Dublin and Dubai being the locations most talked about. But we will have to wait and see, for clearly there is still some negotiating and organising taking place behind the scenes.
Three Week Gap
What is significant is that there is a three-week gap between the start of the overseas leg of the South African challenge and the end of the derby phase. That break coincides with the final stages of the prestige European competition, the Champions Cup, but also conveniently offers an opportunity for quarantining should that be necessary.
That gap between what should be a tough and bruising series of derbies games and the equally challenging overseas games could be to the advantage of the South African teams. And while there will be some who would forward the opposite argument, and suggest as Bok coach Jacques Nienaber did last year that there is a minimum requirement in terms of number of minutes players spend on the playing field before being ready for international competition, that could be to the advantage of not only the South African teams playing in the Rainbow Cup but also the Springboks.
And if the Boks who play in the Lions series play all the Rainbow Cup games, they will be meeting the minimum requirement (six games) mentioned by Nienaber last year anyway.
When Argentina beat the All Blacks in last year’s Tri-Nations, which the Boks didn’t participate in because they didn’t feel they were ready after the hard lockdown in South Africa, it shocked the rugby world. Argentina hadn’t played any rugby whereas the New Zealand players had warmed up in the intensely physical and competitive Aotearoa competition.
But after the event the wise owls came out of hiding and forwarded their reasons for the crazy result, and one of them was that whereas the Pumas had been in camp and steadily preparing for the All Black game in a scientific and controlled way, the New Zealanders were fatigued after knocking the stuffing out of each other week after week.
The Boks who play in the series against the British and Irish Lions, apart from hopefully one or at most two warm-up internationals, will have warmed up for the iconic clash with the best combination mustered from the four Home Unions in the Rainbow Cup.
Short & Sweet
The games will be intensely competitive because the tournament is, in comparison with most modern day competitions, short and sweet. If a team doesn’t make the final it will play just six games. Throw in a final and there are seven games. The competition kicks off on 24 April and finishes on 19 June.
It is a very different scenario that the Boks challenging to be part of this Lions series will be facing in comparison to the team that played in the last series here in 2009. Back then the top players had to play well over twice as many games in Super Rugby – it was the Super 14 in 2009 – and there were concerns over the management of the players’ workload.
The Boks will go into this Lions series with some of them having played maybe one or two games in the Kick Off 2021 preparation series (no probable Boks played more than that) before taking a four week break from playing ahead of what will be a short but intense series of derby games that led into another three week gap.
For the teams that don’t make the Rainbow Cup final, the overseas phase be made up of just three games, and even for the teams that do make the final the time overseas won’t be longer than the old Super Rugby tours to New Zealand and Australia.
All of this could have a significantly positive impact on not only the freshness of the Bok squad that will tackle a Lions team made up of players who have been playing almost non-stop since the return to play in the UK and Ireland last August, but also on the quality of the rugby produced.
No Holding Back
Unlike in a lengthy Super Rugby season, there won’t be any tendency for players to feel they need to manage themselves physically. Yes, they do have a long year ahead of them, and the season could extend unbroken until next June. That will have negative consequences in the long run for sure, but they won’t be felt at the point of the season when the Lions are in South Africa, and it is the Lions series that everyone is aiming at and seeing as the imperative.
Far from trying to limit appearances at franchise level to protect bodies like previous Bok coaches might have done, national director of rugby Rassie Erasmus is telling the coaches he wants the players to play as much as possible. Which makes sense when “as much as possible” has a limit of just seven Rainbow Cup games.
Vodacom Bulls coach Jake White has told the media that he has had a peek at the overseas draw for the Rainbow Cup and while it might change, he says it will be tough. In other words, top sides like Leinster, Munster and Ulster probably feature prominently on the overseas schedule.
If that is the case though that is also good – one of the reasons less can be considered to be more in this instance is because it facilitates a higher level of competition, and the tougher and the greater the quality of the rugby played so much the better for the Bok chances of being ready to beat the Lions.
The condensed nature of the Rainbow Cup, and hence the main part of the build-up to the Lions tour, should benefit not only the Boks and the players but also the rugby public crying out for a good competition to whet their appetite on ahead of the main course heading in our direction in July.In short competitions all games matter and that coupled with the need to impress the Bok coaches should spawn rugby of a high quality. – SuperSport