It might seem contorted logic to suggest the Blitzboks’ success in the World Sevens Series provided proof to Allister Coetzee as to why he should try and keep the overseas-based player component to his Springbok squad to a minimum, but bear with me.
Last year the national Sevens team was far and away the biggest South African rugby success story. It probably wasn’t coincidence that the success story of a bleak year is also the only national team that SA Rugby has complete control over. There are many reasons for the Blitzbok success, but that the group is based in Stellenbosch, spends months rather than weeks or days in camp and has a singular focus is a big part of it.
Unlike with the national 15-man team, the players do not have any distractions once they are part of the Sevens squad. By contracting themselves to Sevens, they avoid being pawns in a tug of war between the national body and the provinces and they sign up to be part of a uniform conditioning and training program.
Springbok coach Coetzee does not have that luxury. He is much more dependent than Sevens coach Neil Powell on the different conditioning coaches around the country doing their job. When Crusaders coach Scott Robertson said recently that South African teams lagged because of conditioning, he may have been unfair to the Stormers and the Lions, but generally it is a perception that is hard to challenge.
The Kiwi teams do play at a quicker tempo than the South African sides and they tend to outlast opponents from this country. It has been documented enough that a big part of what they get right is the control the New Zealand national body has over conditioning. The All Blacks players have one paymaster.
Obviously Coetzee cannot have his players in camp as long as the Sevens players are in camp. He cannot have the same control for the simple reason that the provinces and the overseas clubs do still have a big stake in the players that he selects to play for him.
In a rugby country that demands instant gratification, a long view is not always possible. The Super Rugby results, at least when compared to New Zealand’s, appear to demand that if Coetzee is going to retain his job, a liberal sprinkling of overseas based players who boast the necessary international experience be called up when he names his squad for the French series tomorrow.
After his experience last year, however, Coetzee should know better than anyone that selecting overseas-based players cannot just be based on considerations relating to whether they are good enough to play international rugby. He also needs to be able to assess whether those players meet with stringent fitness criteria, and whether they are keeping pace with any innovations in conditioning coaching back home.
Before the Twickenham Test against England last November, Coetzee complained about how debilitating it was that several of his stalwarts only joined up with the squad on the Sunday before the game. He had only a few training sessions to reabsorb them into a group that had been together for two weeks before that.
One of the advantages that the All Blacks have over South Africa and other international teams is that all their players are home-based and thus all of them take part in training camps and are subject to regular individual evaluation during the Super Rugby season. In short, the advantage the Kiwis have is the same advantage that the Blitzboks have if you compare them to the Springboks.
Coetzee knows that and it is why he should tread warily when it comes to calling up overseas-based players to his squad for the Junes series against France.
The value of the national training camps he has assembled this season would be significantly lessened if half his starting team is going to be made up of players who were on the other side of the world when those camps took place.