The Springboks’ attention is divided because they serve multiple masters. The All Blacks don’t employ overseas-based players. Their absence is countered by a collective single-mindedness and there’s a streamlined path that runs from local franchise to the national side.
Check out this All Blacks pack: Moody, Coles, Franks, Retallick, Whitelock, Cane, Squire and Read. With the exception of Liam Squire (Chiefs, Highlanders) each of these All Blacks have only played for one NZ Super Rugby franchise throughout their careers.
Now the backs: Aaron Smith, Barrett, Ioane, SBW, Crotty, Naholo and Ben Smith. Waisake Naholo played a bit for the Blues before moving to the Highlanders and Sonny Bill Williams (a unique case) crossed codes from League to Union and played all over the map. The rest have stayed with their original franchises.
Look past the considerable Test experience of this starting XV. Note that nine of them – closing in on 10 – are centurions for their franchises.
Bear in mind how sabbaticals are offered to top-tier All Blacks to ensure their optimum physical and mental longevity. They don’t have to worry as much as they could about burnout or about where their next paycheck is coming from. They are singularly driven, epitomised by how connected they are on the field.
Now let’s look at the cream of South Africa’s crop:
It’s telling that Tendai Mtawarira and Siya Kolisi are the only centurions for their respective franchises.
Eben Etzebeth has played more for the Springboks than he has for the Stormers. He’s toiled for Japan’s Red Hurricanes and was forced to turn down stints at Saracens and Bristol due to concussion.
Franco Mostert’s spent a few seasons with the Ricoh Black Rams during Super Rugby’s downtime. Did fatigue and a pending move to Gloucester impact his Mendoza performance? Does he subconsciously already have one foot on the plane?
Warren Whiteley has also been stretched by Japanese commitments. Did inadequate rest contribute to his absence in last year’s Super Rugby final and for most of this year’s competition?
Duane Vermeulen was Toulon’s captain, committed to their cause. He’s just arrived at the Kubota Spears and Rassie Erasmus has apparently sent out an abrupt SOS in the hope that Vermeulen can face New Zealand in Wellington. Surely this flip-flopping breeds instability?
Were Faf De Klerk and Willie Le Roux subliminally operating in first gear last weekend to preserve themselves for the All Blacks clash before being thrust into an already rumbling Premiership?
Damian De Allende injured his ankle while playing for the Kintetsu Liners and he’s since struggled to regain his fine 2015 form. Upon returning home, he said: “I played a lot of matches last year and had four days off before going to Japan. I arrived on the weekend and had to be on the training field by the Monday. To get no rest, took its toll on my body.”
Handre Pollard has also played in the East. On day one of training back at the Bulls, he tore knee ligaments side-lining him for an entire year. He has subsequently been plagued by multiple injuries and, like De Allende, has battled to find consistent form.
Experience allows me to appreciate what it’s like to split work focus; how it has the potential to affect quality of performance, hamper durability, and erode confidence.
Imagine if SA players didn’t need to supplement their income and exhaust themselves by consistently being pulled in different directions, having to play throughout the year in multiple countries, amid various competitions, for different clubs.
What if Erasmus didn’t need to spend so much energy negotiating for the release of certain players? How does a team build consistency and ingrain assurance when it’s never entirely sure who will join the squad and when? What does it do to the group psyche to have the likes of Bismark Du Plessis and Frans Steyn pull out of a Test series at the 11th hour?
Isn’t the compounding stress of this lack of structured and sustainable continuity – more than a supposed dearth of skills, increased physical rivalry, and the need to meet challenging transformation targets – what is primarily undermining the Springbok cause?
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