Kiwis being managed to perfection
The Crusaders still have some tough obstacles in front of them if they hope to add the 2013 edition of Super Rugby to their seven other title triumphs in the Sanzar competition.
The Chiefs haven’t been as good in the past few weeks as they were earlier in the season, but the Crusaders have to travel to Hamilton for the semifinal. And if they get through against the Chiefs, the Crusaders may then face the daunting task of having to fly to Pretoria and acclimatise to the altitude in the space of just a few days.
Two years ago the Crusaders travelled from New Zealand to Cape Town to beat the Stormers, but Newlands is at sea level. Playing on the Highveld is a different proposition entirely. So it is still possible that the Crusaders’ late season run might be halted.
What is beyond dispute though is that the Crusaders are peaking at the right time – and regardless of what it means to that franchise’s chances of winning the competition, what it could mean to the bigger picture should be taken as an ominous warning by both the Springboks and the Wallabies.
The Castle Rugby Championship, which also features Argentina, is just around the corner. And it shouldn’t have escaped the notice of Bok coach Heyneke Meyer and, of course, new Wallaby mentor Ewen McKenzie, who was on the receiving end of the Crusaders' powerful surge this past weekend, that some of the top All Blacks are looking fresh and hungry.
You could argue that they got their peaking wrong in the sense that if they had peaked earlier, they would have won the New Zealand conference and not have to travel. They would be unbeatable in any playoff game in Christchurch.
But there is a bigger picture, which there always is in New Zealand, where the All Blacks are made the priority. This is in contrast with South Africa, where the provinces own the players and regional interests tend to hold sway over national ones. And when it comes to that bigger picture, which is the international season, the Kiwis look to be getting it spot on.
While Richie McCaw, who made his seasonal debut in the 66th minute of the rout of the Reds in the quarterfinal, was the only player to have enjoyed a six-month sabbatical, and other players have been injured during the course of the year, the Crusaders do appear to manage their players better than others do. For instance, when was the last time you can recall Dan Carter actually finishing a full match?
He is a match-winner and vital cog in the Crusaders machine, yet at every opportunity that is available for him to get a rest he seems to get that rest. It may be why he is running into such impressive form late in the competition.
The issue of peaking at the right time is becoming a big consideration for Super Rugby coaches now that the competition is so long. I know that when he started the year Stormers coach Allister Coetzee planned his season around the need to hit the straps late in the competition.
His thinking was dictated by his experience of the past few years, where the Stormers made strong starts to the competition but then reached the playoff phase with key players injured and the team generally looking like it was running on empty.
Coetzee would have liked to have rotated more than he did instead of having Jean de Villiers play almost every game and Andries Bekker and Duane Vermeulen play every game until they once again got injured. But a tough draw, which saw all the top teams play the Stormers at the front end of the competition, plus early injuries, militated against his best intentions.
The Crusaders though were prepared to take the risk, probably because their coaches knew that they were not risking their jobs by helping out the national cause. South African Super Rugby coaches are not employed to further any national cause. They are hired by the franchises to get their teams to win no matter what. And if that means jeopardising the Springbok chances by playing a top national player into the ground, then so be it.
It may be one of the reasons the top All Black players are all looking so hungry, fresh and in form, while many of their Springbok counterparts are either injured or looking in need of a good rest. The Wallabies of course have just completed a tough series against the British and Irish Lions, and it might explain why both the Reds and Brumbies in the past few weeks have been playing like they are living through an anti-climax.
Fortunately for Meyer two of the top South African teams that provide many of the Boks are not taking part in the Super Rugby Finals Series and the likes of De Villiers, Eben Etzebeth, Willem Alberts and the Du Plessis brothers have plenty of time to rest and recharge.
But he must still wish he had greater control over the players so that he could profit from the good management that, even if it doesn’t win the Crusaders anything, appears to be paving the way for the All Blacks.