Survival course hurting the product
I had literally walked into the Stormers team announcement press conference from my flight into Cape Town from Durban, so when Allister Coetzee started to talk about someone called Jebb Sinclair it crossed my mind I had been away from home too long.
Spending a week mulling over John Plumtree’s problems did remove me a bit from the affairs of the Stormers. When all the Sinclair stuff came up during the presser I was glad I had made it back in time, for some fan was sure to email me asking what I thought of the decision to engage Jebb Sinclair. There is no worse feeling for a rugby writer than to be told the news by the readers.
Anyway, it quickly became apparent from the line of questioning that there wasn’t just one journo in the room who didn’t know what was going on. And when Coetzee spoke about Canada it did make an immediate connection – I watched quite a few Canada games at the last World Cup and Sinclair was their best player.
It’s the second time in 11 months that the Cape media have been blindsided at the High Performance Centre. Last June someone asked during a training session if anyone knew who the Stormers player was who looked just like Schalk Brits. It was Schalk Brits, flown out to South Africa in an emergency after an injury to Duane Vermeulen.
There was a bit of an outcry about Brits playing that semifinal, so we’ll have to wait and see if there is an outcry from the Cape public and media about the Sinclair recruitment on loan from London Irish. I suspect there would have been were Siya Kolisi and Nizaam Carr kept from playing, but they are playing and Coetzee’s explanation that he needs a specialist No 8 to cover Carr makes absolute sense. The man next in line, the Western Province Vodacom Cup No 8, is actually a flank.
What the arrival of Sinclair does do is highlight the downside of a Super Rugby season that, because of the extra round of tough derbies, is more bruising than it ever was and yet is much longer and drawn out than it ever was before. Players who are also first-choice internationals see virtual non-stop rugby from February through to mid-August, and then there is hardly a break before the start of The Rugby Championship.
Sorry, but that is plainly ridiculous, and it is impossible not to find agreement with those who say something has to give somewhere. The Sinclair arrival in the Cape has killed off what for me was becoming a morbid fascination on how far the Stormers would have to dig into their depth at loose-forward – there has been such a success rate when it comes to blooding new players recently that the uninitiated could be forgiven for thinking that almost anyone who lives here and who is male is capable of playing Super Rugby.
That is not the case though, and neither is it the case anywhere else, and definitely not in Dunedin, where the Highlanders are now in a far worse position than the Stormers following their bloody Saturday in Durban where they lost another three players to season-ending injuries. They had already been forced to call Mike Delany back from Japan and Tamati Ellison from wherever he was, so goodness knows what coach Jamie Joseph, who showed good humour despite everything at the Kings Park press conference, is going to do now.
So many teams have spent significant proportions of this competition playing well while being under-strength. The Sharks are only now getting back to anything like the combination that they would have wanted to start the season with, but for a lot of their players it is like they are just starting out again, so match fitness is an issue. As Plumtree says, as the season draws on, the match fitness will improve and the Sharks will get better.
The problem though is that his team has had to play too many games at half muster, and so have many other franchises. It robs the competition of quality, and the injuries that are now happening are changing the outlook – for instance, the Highlanders are going to be a much easier team for the Bulls to beat in Dunedin than they were earlier in the competition.
But then the Bulls are starting to feel the injury pinch that normally coincides with an overseas tour, so it is a swings and roundabouts thing. We may just end the season with all the second teams of the franchises playing against one another.
Most coaches appear to have accepted that Super Rugby has become a survival course and the team that wins it will be the one that has the last man standing. But the apathy at a normally boisterous Kings Park last week, where just 18 000 people pitched and you would have heard a mouse squeak, suggested it may be becoming a survival course for the fans too. That has to be seen as a problem.