Player management gives Kiwis the edge
The good relationship that the New Zealand national coaches appear to have with the franchise coaches in their country may have played a role in the All Blacks following up their World Cup triumph with Castle Rugby Championship success.
Administrators and coaches responsible for the fortunes of the Springboks have often looked enviously at what is happening in New Zealand, where the central union has more control over contracting and the management of players than is the case here.
And this discrepancy may be one of the reasons that the All Blacks were able to get through the Championship relatively unscathed in terms of injury in comparison to South Africa and particularly Australia.
At a time when player management has become even more important because of the arduous Sanzar schedule that now effectively stretches from February to October, All Black coach Steve Hansen had little hesitation on Thursday in pointing to it as one of the reasons his team has gone relatively untroubled through the international season.
“In a contact sport like rugby there are always going to be injuries and you just have to accept that they are going to happen. They come with the territory,” said Hansen.
“However you do need to do all that is in your power to try and keep the injury rate down, and in that sense I think player management has been one of the reasons we have got to this phase of the rugby year without as many injuries as the other nations.”
Hansen said it was not just his own management that needed to be lauded for that, but the entire spectrum of franchise coaches in New Zealand.
“We do have an extremely good relationship with the franchise coaches in New Zealand and in that sense we are very lucky. They have rotated players when they have needed to, and they have rested players when we have requested it. We have good communication and everyone works together.”
That has seldom been the case in South Africa, with both Peter de Villiers and Heyneke Meyer arriving at the start of new international seasons with a list of injury problems that came about courtesy of players being over-played in Super Rugby.
But then the franchise coaches will also with some justification claim that the channels of communication from the Bok coaches haven’t always been great either, and there is blame on both sides.
For instance, while De Villiers was probably rightly aggrieved last year that Andries Bekker got to the international part of the year crocked because he had played every game for the Stormers, and it was the same when Meyer started this year, franchise and provincial coaches might be right to ask for a more common-sense approach to be applied during the period when the Championship is being played and it clashes with the Currie Cup.
Patrick Lambie is an example of a player who had hardly played for two months when he finally got onto the field for half an hour after halftime when the Boks thrashed the Wallabies last week.
Instead of being rested in the bye week, it would have been reasonable for him to play for the Sharks so that he could pick up match sharpness that he is not going to get by sitting on the bench.
SYSTEM AT FAULT
Essentially it is the system that is at fault, for in New Zealand the priorities are just very different.
In South Africa, partly because of the impact of the isolation years, when the Currie Cup was the only big thing in local rugby, the unions are still mostly self-serving rather than completely subservient to the national interest, which appears to be the case in New Zealand.
And because coaches are hired and fired on their results, rather than their role being evaluated in terms of the contribution they make to the national good, someone like Allister Coetzee can’t be blamed for being reluctant to rotate players like Bekker and Duane Vermeulen when they are so essential to his longevity in his position as Stormers coach.
The good news for Meyer is that Coetzee is already talking about resting key Springboks at the start of the next Super Rugby season, something that would take some bravery as the Stormers don’t have the depth in number of contracted players that the Sharks and the Bulls do.
Coetzee has said that next season will be when the accumulative effect of the taxing current schedule, with its double round of bruising derbies, is noticed.
If he is right that could be disturbing for South Africa for while Australia has undeniably been the team most impacted by injuries in this year’s Championship –- the side that lost at Loftus was almost a Wallaby B team -– there are also several key players missing from the Boks.
Fortunately stalwarts such as Jean de Villiers and Bryan Habana have made it through the season to lend much needed experience to an essentially green back division, but they need to be properly managed or the reality is that next year they might just be trading places with the likes of Schalk Burger, JP Pietersen, Bismarck du Plessis and Pierre Spies by being relegated to a spectator role.