Heyneke can help prevent burn-out
As Duane Vermeulen was helped from the field in Sydney this past weekend at the start of what looks like being another frustratingly long absence from the game, it should have been more than just his Stormers coach Allister Coetzee and that franchise's supporters who shared his anguish.
Pierre Spies has enjoyed a good season both as captain and at No 8 for the Bulls, and he would have challenged his Stormers’ opposite number’s right to continue in that position for the Springboks in the coming series of incoming tour matches against mostly second-tier opponents.
But few Springbok coaches have chosen their teams just on the form each player displays in Super Rugby. What happened on the international fields last year has to be taken into account, and it definitely will be by Meyer, who shouldn’t have forgotten how well Vermeulen and his former Stormers teammate Francois Louw combined in the Bok back row last season.
Regardless though of whether you would pick Vermeulen or Spies if both were fit, another injury is not something that Meyer needs right now, particularly if you consider that Ryan Kankowski’s ineffectiveness since his return from Japan has diminished his potential to be an option.
It’s been said often enough – Super Rugby has become a survival course, and the prolonged fight for survival that most of the local teams are embroiled in at the moment has only made it more likely that injuries will happen.
Vermeulen’s injury could have happened at any time. Jaco Taute had played only a few games when he injured his knee and was ruled out for the season, and Paul Jordaan was ruled out on the training field. You also always get the freak injuries, such as that suffered by cricketer JP Duminy in Australia last year.
But the likelihood of injuries is increased when you are physically and mentally fatigued, and there is also the vicious circle effect that is brought about by the injury crisis once it starts to be felt by a team. By that I refer to the understandable reluctance of coaches to rest important players when the team is continually being disrupted by the withdrawal through injury of other personnel.
Stormers coach Allister Coetzee spoke last year about perhaps resting Jean de Villiers at stages of this Super Rugby season. It was assumed he would consider something similar for Andries Bekker, who is constantly plagued by a chronic shoulder condition. But neither of them has sat out a game yet, and neither had Vermeulen before this last weekend.
You can’t blame Coetzee for that, for the Stormers have had their backs to the wall and have been playing must-win games since the first weeks of Super Rugby.
Why this is something that Meyer should be concerned about is because it will impact on him – if not now, certainly further down the road when the impact of going straight from Super Rugby into the June test matches and then straight back into Super Rugby has to have an effect on minds and bodies.
He may well be helped by the Sharks and Stormers, who supply a liberal proportion of his Springboks, not being part of the play-off stage this year. That will mean a break of a few weeks for some of the players before the next competition starts.
But Meyer can also be pro-active by ensuring that each player does have at least one week off during the June window. He is sure to disagree with me by countering that Italy and Scotland deserve respect and I can also understand why he would want his players to play in their combinations as much as possible before the Rugby Championship. However, if you consider that the Sharks have a bye due in the last week before the June window, then there is an opportunity for Meyer.
Several of the Sharks' Boks are out of form at the moment but are probably still deserving of a run at international level based on what they did on the end-of-year tour. So why not field players like Patrick Lambie, who has lost a bit of ground to Morne Steyn during the Super Rugby season, against Italy and see what they can do there? The game will be in Durban after all, and the Sharks players would at least be rested after having the previous week off.
The following week, against Scotland in Nelspruit, is when Meyer should be bringing in all the top players, with some of the key men being afforded a rest in that opening weekend. He may consider it risky, but it is Meyer’s opportunity to be pro-active in combating the impact of what almost everyone agrees is a ridiculous playing schedule for South Africa’s top players.
If my memory serves me correctly, the All Blacks rotated during the June window last year, and so did Australia. It is a risk, as the Wallabies discovered when they lost to Scotland, but the fact that I almost forgot about that defeat to Scotland shows how irrelevant it really was. So it’s a risk worth taking.