It’s becoming more survival than rugby
Every rugby competition or contest, since the beginning of time, has had an element of survival course to it. Being a hard, contact sport, there will be injuries, and teams from the year dot have been impacted by having to play big matches without players who are indisposed.
Before isolation, when the Springboks tended to win more home series than they lost, the attrition rate that was inflicted on touring teams before they even got to the first test of a series played a big part in this country’s dominance.
In 1980, for instance, the British Lions’ tearaway flanker Stuart Lane, expected to be such a key figure in that series and the only man who could have blunted the influence of the Springboks’ equally quick flanker Rob Louw, was injured and ruled out of the tour within 80 seconds of the start of the first match against Eastern Province in Port Elizabeth.
It set the trend for the tour, and in some positions the Lions were down to their third or fourth choice by the time the test matches arrived. Tony Ward, the man who kept the Lions in touch with his goalkicking record in the first test at Newlands, was the third-choice No 10. I can’t remember how many scrumhalves were ruled out, but I definitely recall the strongly built Welshman Terry Holmes being crocked, and John Robbie owns a British Lions blazer because of those injuries.
But accepting that injuries are part and parcel of rugby does not mean that we should stand by and turn a blind eye when the sport becomes more a survival course and a searching examination of each region's depth than it is an exhibition of skill and a contest between the best of the best. Which is what is happening to Super Rugby.
I was involved in two conversations with top coaches last week where they commented that they didn’t know where they were going to turn if they sustained any more injuries. That Sharks coach John Plumtree and his Stormers counterpart Allister Coetzee were the men in question should be disturbing because both of them are in charge of squads that boast significantly more depth than some other franchises.
If they think they have problems, how should the Southern Kings feel? The Eastern Cape franchise have enjoyed a remarkable debut in Super Rugby if you consider how many captains they have been through, and the Cheetahs did well to beat the Stormers this past weekend if you consider they were down to their third flyhalf, who happened to be the match-winner.
The problem is that the injury swathe cutting through Super Rugby is not just confined to one or two teams. If I had spoken to Frans Ludeke, the Bulls coach, and not the two coastal coaches, he would have been quite justified had he uttered a similar lament. I didn't speak to Todd Blackadder away from the press conferences when he was in Cape Town and Durban, but he has a similar problem.
The fact the Crusaders were able to be so competitive against the Stormers and Sharks on their two-match tour while missing key players such as Dan Carter and Kieran Read should not obscure the fact that paying spectators and those who spend money on television subscriptions to watch the top players, should feel cheated.
The Stormers and Sharks play each other this coming week in Cape Town in a massive derby, but both teams will be so significantly under strength that it is impossible to look at the match-up the way we might have had we been making predictions at the start of the year.
The Sharks are without – if the counting of one of the other Sharks coaches I spoke to is correct – as many as seven first-choice players, and 10 squad members in all. The Stormers are missing Eben Etzebeth, Tiaan Liebenberg, Schalk Burger, Peter Grant, Bryan Habana, Jaco Taute, Gerhard van den Heever and others, and it makes a big difference to how they can play and approach each game.
If this was a unique situation and could be considered a freak occurrence it would be okay, but I did some thinking after talking to Plumtree and wondered: when last did the Stormers/Western Province and Sharks play each other while the two teams were even remotely at full strength?
Last year’s Currie Cup final was won by a second-string WP team, and the Super Rugby semifinal was lost by a Stormers team that was also without key players, most notably Duane Vermeulen. In the Kings Park league game the Stormers had half their team out with injuries, and in the 2012 seasonal pipe-opener at Newlands it was the Sharks who had most of their top players missing.
So maybe at a push we have to go back to 2011 for the last time the top Sharks and Stormers teams faced off at full muster, but I have a hunch that you might have to go even further back, to 2010. That was before the new format was introduced, with the double round of derbies which is at the heart of the escalation of injuries.
The new format was adopted because derbies were supposedly what the fans wanted to see, but it is debatable whether the hunger for match-ups between teams from the same country will continue if the slow diminishing of rugby’s core asset, which is the players, continues in the way it is.