Unless one of the two remaining local franchises that still has an interest in Super Rugby pulls a rabbit out of the hat, South African rugby could 10 days from now be heading into a period that promises interesting ramifications both for what happens later this year and what happens in 2019.
It is a period of nothing. At least in terms of first-class rugby. The Rugby Championship only starts on 18 August. That means that if the Lions and Sharks are out of Super Rugby after the quarter-final round, which takes place the weekend of 20 July, their Springboks will have four weeks to wait before they get called into action again.
As for the Stormers and the Bulls, they have even longer. The Bulls will have five weeks off, and the Stormers are already resting after finishing the Super Rugby season a week ahead of everyone else. With Western Province also out of the Supersport Challenge, the Cape players have plenty of time to catch breath and take stock before their defence of the Currie Cup starts the same weekend as the Rugby Championship kick-off.
In previous years, when the Currie Cup was played over a double round, the rank and file provincial players went straight into the domestic season after Super Rugby. Last year there was even an overlap between that competition and the Currie Cup. But that won’t be happening now that the competition has been truncated into a single round.
On the face of it, that should be a good thing in that it means provincial coaches won’t have the excuse they had in the past that they didn’t have enough time to prepare for the opening round because of the short transition from Super Rugby to the Currie Cup. There should be an uplift in the quality of rugby produced, with defences being better organised than they were at the start of previous Currie Cup campaigns.
Likewise, Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus will have time to work with his players that his All Black counterpart Steve Hansen shouldn’t have if, as expected, the final stages of Super Rugby are dominated by New Zealand teams.
There are obvious benefits from a player welfare viewpoint to the down time the players at both international and provincial level could be looking forward to. One of the last things that Erasmus said at the Newlands post-match press conference after the final Test against England was that he might mix and match his selections in the Championship as some players were in need of a rest.
He singled out his skipper for the June portion of the international season, Siya Kolisi, as a player who had played a lot of rugby. Some of us who were there interpreted it as an indication that the captaincy might change for the Championship now that Warren Whiteley is fit again.
We may well see that happen, but by the arrival of the first Championship game, Kolisi should be rested and well recovered from the impact of playing virtually every Stormers game in Super Rugby. Indeed, as he didn’t play the last match against the Sharks because of illness, Kolisi could be under-done rather than over-done by 18 August, by which time he would not have played for seven weeks.
Ditto Pieter-Steph du Toit, who played his heart out against England in the Springbok jersey and also finished the Stormers’ campaign with a flourish but who has been flirting with borderline too much rugby. If he is selected to start against Argentina in Durban, he wouldn’t have played in six weeks. There shouldn’t be any questions about his freshness.
This could all be advantageous for Erasmus. Not only can he call the players up for a month long preparation camp before the Championship starts, the break from playing also means that there is less risk of his players feeling burnt out once they get deep into the southern hemisphere competition, and then beyond that into the end of year tour in November.
The break, which is coupled with a less condensed schedule once the competition starts, will also be good for the Super Rugby players who will be drawn on in the Currie Cup season. Fewer games, more off weeks due to an endeavour not to clash the domestic competition with home Championship fixtures, means less chance of work-load related injuries.
That could have a positive spin-off on the next Super Rugby season, which because it starts a World Cup year and because at least two of the local franchises see 2019 as the culmination of a three year plan – in the words of Stormers assistant Paul Feeney it is time to have “all guns blazing” – is going to be an important one.
There is a caveat though to all the positives. As Bulls coach John Mitchell has noted, the South African franchises have tended to be getting by on the seat of their pants, with the squads lacking enough quality Super Rugby players to mount a strong, consistent challenge across the competition.
That means the fringe players need to be developed, and for that you need quality rugby and quality competition. Are the top provincial players who are on the threshold of breaking into Super Rugby, such as WP flanker Johan du Toit, getting enough good opportunities to develop?