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Are SA Super Rugby teams fit enough?





With three of South Africa’s Super Rugby franchises losing to their New Zealand counterparts this past weekend alone, and just one victory over a New Zealand side this entire season, the question has once again been raised as to the conditioning of local franchises in the tournament.

The Crusaders coach Scott Robertson, fresh from leading his side to a record-breaking 62-24 win over the Vodacom Bulls at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday, laid some cold hard truth on local franchises about just how good their conditioning is at the moment.

“I think clearly the Bulls struggled with our tempo, how quickly we could play tonight. The week before with the Cheetahs, they were probably the toughest team for us to play in terms of the speed of the game, they wanted to play an expansive game, but they just didn't execute the last couple of weeks.

“For me, it is really clear that the South African teams need to be fitter. Super Rugby is a fast game, it’s a tempo game, it is a game with a high skill level and it is tough when you are fatigued and I think it showed.

“When we got momentum and played with speed they struggled to stay with us. That is clear, that picture is clear for everyone to see.”

Robertson’s words will go down like a lead balloon for local coaches, but they are hard to argue with.

Just this weekend alone, the Stormers fought back from a poor start to be 22-all in the second half, before the Hurricanes blew them away.

The Cheetahs offered up 21 points in the last six minutes of their game to self-destruct and hand a victory to the Highlanders, and the Bulls were simply never on the same tempo as the Crusaders, who demolished them and condemned them to their worst defeat ever at their Fortress Loftus.

With the international season looming, and the All Blacks looking more daunting than ever, fresh concerns over conditioning have been raised, and it seems the Springboks will go into the international season with a disadvantage once again, despite a number of conditioning Indabas taking place at the behest of Bok coach Allister Coetzee.

While the problem hasn’t been limited to the past few seasons, as it is a perennial one, last year two Super Rugby franchises protested to Saru that their players had returned more unfit than they had left when they came back from the pre-season tour.

And while the Indaba’s have taken place and a blueprint agreed on, there is evidence that the conditioning coaches have simply returned to their franchises and ignored the agreed on standards, with each coach following his own individual programme.

One of the biggest problems has been the approach to conditioning in Super Rugby franchises, with too much emphasis being put on short-term gains instead of a longer term strategy that sees players being managed to fulfill their potential.

Saru seem to have accepted the approach that contracted Springboks do not play more than five games in a row.

However, with only 12 contracted Springboks out of a Super Rugby group of 180, the other players are often fatigued and overplayed, with the Springboks reaping the consequences of a squad that doesn’t perform at their peak.

Contrast this to New Zealand’s centralised contract system, which phases players in over a three-week period in which they do not exceed game-time that is specified by the All Blacks.

After an end of year tour for instance, players would be given six weeks off, then phased in with 40, 60 and then 80-minute intervals in the first three Super Rugby games. Often players are withdrawn to ensure peak optimal fitness so that when they get to the national team, they are in peak condition.

South Africa’s complicated system sees players head to Japan in the Currie Cup season, playing non-stop for 12 months and then returning to Super Rugby to continue playing.

A number of local franchises have already told players they will not be agreeing to them heading to Japan, as it affects the Super Rugby performances.

One only has to think of 2016’s long-term injuries to Handre Pollard and Damian de Allende – and the fact both players are again injured now – as issues that have been picked up and identified by teams that have affected their performances and form.

The New Zealand sides – Super Rugby or the All Blacks – tend to win many of their games in the last 20 minutes, a feat that only the Emirates Lions regularly pulls off among the local sides.

The truth is cold and hard and clear, but unless local coaches and administrators pay more than simple lip service to conditioning, local franchises will always play second fiddle to New Zealand sides.

The gap is getting bigger, and unless something is done, the problems will just become bigger.

Robertson, however, backed the Bulls this week to put on a better performance against the Highlanders, saying that they “need to show their supporters how much they care.”

“I think there are a lot of challenges for the Bulls. It’s not for me to go too deep into it, but they lost a lot of experienced players who would still be playing for the Bulls, going over to the UK and Europe, and a lot of that experience has been lost to teach the young guys to come through, and what it means to play for them, to prepare and pass on the skills required to be a professional rugby player.

"There is definitely a gap there, there is not the experience in numbers of caps that you previously saw in Super Rugby teams and that is in Australia as well.

“There might be a lot of uncertainty about what is happening with the competition and that doesn't help either. Look, they've got another week to make their supporters proud and show just how much they care. That was the message I just mentioned to their coaching group, to show that they really care so that their supporters understand they are doing the best that they can.”

But with conditioning not a quick fix, guts and determination might not be enough.


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