Sanzar need to be reasonable
There was a lot of fuss made when Schalk Brits returned to the Cape to play one Super Rugby game last year.
Brits hadn’t played for the Stormers for several seasons at the time and the match in question was a semifinal against the Crusaders. The Stormers were effectively heading into the defining part of their season with a player who had not played any role in getting them to the knockouts, so it was understandable that the move did not meet with universal approval.
It was probably because he remembered the outcry of last year that Stormers coach Allister Coetzee treaded warily when he first broached the subject of Jebb Sinclair’s eligibility for the Stormers in the knockout phases during a press conference this week. Coetzee has asked Stormers managing director Rob Wagner to apply for permission to play Sinclair in the playoffs.
The loophole exploited by the Stormers with Brits and the Sharks with Frederic Michalak last year has since been closed by Sanzar, with only players who have signed for their franchises before 1 April being eligible for the knockout phase. So ever since Canadian No 8 Sinclair came to the Cape to fill the hole created at loose-forward by the injuries to Schalk Burger, Nick Koster, Duane Vermeulen and Nizaam Carr, the understanding has been that Sinclair will head back to his England club once the playoffs arrive.
But if Coetzee expected hardline questioning from a media group that tends to take the view that the Stormers should pick from the local crop of loosies rather than go outside – and there was a fair amount of opposition to the initial recruitment of Sinclair – he would have been pleasantly surprised. The difference this time is that the request being made to Sanzar this time is a reasonable one, and given the ridiculous schedule that has been foisted on the participants in Super Rugby, I can’t see how they can say no to letting Sinclair play.
The official line from the Stormers is that they are expecting Vermeulen, Burger and Koster to be available again for the playoff fixtures. But then, as Coetzee readily admits, he was pretty adamant before the break for the international window that Burger and Koster would be back for the Lions game last weekend.
Neither of them was, and it is impossible to say for sure whether it will be any different come the knockout games in a few weeks from now. Both Burger and Koster were making good progress and appeared ready to subject their gammy knees to contact only for the first hard session to send them back to square one by inducing discomfort.
There is of course also the possibility that one of the currently fit loose-forwards will go down between now and the arrival of the playoffs, and we have already seen the Stormers go onto the field once this season with a hooker, Deon Fourie, on the flank.
There is potential for the quality of the playoffs to be undermined by the attrition rate which is being felt by many of the competing teams, and the question of what impact there may be on the tournament by having a series of international matches played before the end of the league phase was answered when the Crusaders lost to the Hurricanes the other day.
There is no way that the Crusaders would have come short in that game had they not been without key players who had been injured playing for the All Blacks in the previous weeks. The Sharks look set to play the Bulls this weekend without Willem Alberts, who was also injured playing international rugby. And while the Bulls got through their game against the Cheetahs okay, the non-stop rugby their Springboks have been forced to play over several weeks is sure to catch up with them if they are involved in the first playoff weekend.
In a nutshell, the competition has just become too long and the attrition rate too high for it not to impact on quality, and if something doesn’t give now it will give in the Sanzar international season. Sanzar are going to have to take another look at the format, and they need to do it quickly, for this year at least there was a long break between the World Cup and the start of the new season.
Next year there will be a much shorter window between the end of year tours and the beginning of Super Rugby, meaning even less time for recuperation and rejuvenation after a busy season, and there is likely to be a knock-on effect, with the injuries mounting and becoming even worse in 2013 than they are now.
It's no small wonder that players based in the southern hemisphere want to head to the north, where both the physical and travel demands are much less. So when a player wants to make the trip in the reverse direction in order to help out in a crisis, there really shouldn’t be any argument against it.