Richie’s right - something has to give
Richie McCaw’s decision to miss out on next year’s Super Rugby in a quest to preserve himself and ensure some longevity in his rugby career is a good one and it throws the spotlight on the biggest problem faced by southern hemisphere rugby right now.
I wrote in my Sunday newspaper column this past weekend that the angst there appears to be in Pretoria at the remote prospect of the Blue Bulls being relegated from the upper-echelon of the Currie Cup is misplaced, and what McCaw is doing is really what I suggested the Bulls should be doing.
It may change, as it always does, when the knockout phase of the competition arrives, but the crowd turn-outs at Currie Cup games this year have been pitiful. The message that is being sent out is that people are tired of the never ending whirl of derbies that have been foisted on the players through Sanzar’s decision to introduce a double round in Super Rugby.
If the Sharks end up playing Western Province in a Currie Cup semifinal or final this year, which is quite possible, it will be the sixth game between them. And ask any player who plays in one of those games between the fierce coastal rivals, they aren’t easy. They are in fact very bruising and taxing on the body, as are all the derbies that South African and New Zealand teams play in Super Rugby.
Coaches have said it and some players have said it, and McCaw, by asking for and getting time off, is essentially making the same statement that the two finest backline players of this generation, Dan Carter and Fourie du Preez, made four years apart. When Carter went to France in 2008 it was ostensibly to take a break from the tough southern hemisphere schedule, and when Du Preez announced his move to Japan he also listed the taxing work-load as one of his reasons for leaving.
So what has this got to do with the Bulls and their Currie Cup status?
It’s simple – dropping down a division in the Currie Cup will mean that the players on junior contracts can play in the domestic competition in future, and the top players who are not test players can take two or three much needed months off for the purposes of rehabilitation and conditioning.
If it’s not needed now it will be next year, with the accumulative effects of all the hard rugby already being felt and showcased by the names that are missing from the two teams that will face each other in Saturday’s Castle Rugby Championship match in Pretoria. Australia are so under-strength that you could almost say the Wallabies are a second string team, while the Boks are not that much better off.
A proper window in the season which can be devoted to rehabilitation is sorely needed now that the double round of derbies in Super Rugby has made an already tough competition even tougher. Forgetting for the moment the obvious damage it would do to the Bulls’ brand in a country which still harkens after the Currie Cup for historical reasons, if I was the Bulls I might welcome the prospect of relegation in the sense that it could open up that window.
Next year will be the third season of the new extended Super Rugby competition with its ridiculous demanding schedule and double round of physical derbies, and a lot of people close to the game are predicting that is when the drawbacks of too much non-stop rugby will start being felt. The Wallabies were already feeling the pinch at last year’s World Cup, and in my view it was the reason they never did justice to their standing as a rugby nation even though Bryce Lawrence helped them reach the semifinals.
It’s a gloomy prediction, yet it may be on the money - the Sanzar schedule is going to accelerate the attrition rate to the extent that two full strength teams clashing against each other in any competition outside of maybe a World Cup year is going to become a rare event.
When you are already playing a double round of derby matches in Super Rugby, who needs another double round of the same in the Currie Cup?
Speaking to the coaches, it doesn’t appear they’re that excited about it, and looking at the empty seats at the venues these past few weeks suggests the fans aren’t crazy about it either.
It is true that the Currie Cup helps build depth for Super Rugby, but then doesn’t the Vodacom Cup already do that? The bottom line is that some plan needs to be made to ensure that all top players get an opportunity to do what McCaw has elected to do, thus ensuring not only their own longevity in the game but also the consistent quality required to sell the sport.