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A no-win situation for all concerned

I think we can take it that the now very messy transition from Super Rugby to test rugby and then back to Super Rugby satisfies no-one, and has got to be sorted out.

It’s a no-win situation for all parties.

Super Rugby coaches have had to deal with players being taken out for national training duties, players whose minds may have wandered off topic as the tests approach, and the dilemma of what, exactly, to do with the bulk of their squad for the next month.

The national coaches have had their selections compromised by injury and fatigue and have had minimal chance to prepare their sides for test matches.

Certainly in New Zealand suspicions have been muttered that one or two top players have been “looking after themselves” during Super Rugby, while one or two have shown a remarkable return to form just as the tests loom.

It’s an unsatisfactory scenario all round, and can only be resolved if the issues discussed in last week’s column (and thank you for a really awesome response) come to pass.

The solutions will be either a shortening, or rationalising of the Super Rugby programme, or pushing back the June window to July and we can only hope that common sense prevails, because Super Rugby deserves better, test rugby deserves better, pretty much everyone in the game deserves better.

It’s especially messy in Australia because of the British and Irish Lions tour.

Now, I think we’ll all agree that a Lions tour is the best and biggest thing to happen outside the World Cup, but look at what is happening in OZ.

This weekend the Reds get a free pass with the bye, but there are two Aussie derbies to be played, meaning that come the resumption of Super Rugby in July, the Aussies will have played two full rounds more than the rest, and have only one game left. And this week’s round will be played without any members of the Wallaby squad.

The Aussie Super Rugby teams will also take on the Lions in tour matches without their test players, just as happened in New Zealand in 2005 (although All Blacks were allowed to turn out for the New Zealand Maori team which beat the tourists) and, I think I’m right in saying South Africa in 2009.

While the interests of the national team are paramount, this sacrificing of provincial teams on the altar of All Black/Wallaby/Springbok success is threatening to destroy the great tradition of the old tours, and may threaten their future altogether.

It’s a shame, firstly for Super Rugby because it is an important competition and it is tantalisingly poised….we probably have our top six now, but the scrap for top two placings in particular is delicately balanced. The break will be good for the Chiefs, who have injuries to heal, but bad for the Bulls who see their great momentum of recent weeks stalled.

But there is much to look forward to in the test matches.

The Lions tour seems to be generating almost…almost, as much interest here in New Zealand as our upcoming series with the French.

New Zealand's interest is multi-layered…obviously as a rugby mad nation we’re going to have a natural fascination, but there are also compelling sub plots with both sides to be coached by Kiwis, and of course we are watching with great interest to see if the rather chilly relationship between Robbie Deans and Quade Cooper thaws out.

One of New Zealand's top coaches told me a week or so ago that Deans has to pick Cooper, simply because for all his faults he is the one guy who can come up with that one extraordinary play that might break a series such as this. I bow to this gentleman's superior knowledge but after watching Cooper do everything to firstly lose, and then win the Reds match with the Rebels last week I can understand Dean's reluctance.

And besides, he’s not exactly known for mending fences with those he has fallen out with.

Then, of course, there is the Lions and the eternal challenge of taking players from four fiercely proud nations who spend the best part of four years trying to beat the daylights out of each other, and trying to mould them into a cohesive unit, working out what is the best 15 for the job, while at the same time guarding against the formation of cliques of disgruntled compatriots. Warren Gatland will inevitably be accused of favouring his Welsh boys at some stage.

The Lions almost always have a team strong enough to win, but their strongest opposition sometimes comes from things that fester within their own ranks…or maybe a coach who loses the plot as Clive Woodward did so spectacularly in New Zealand eight years ago, and Graham Henry before that. Henry has at least had the fibre to admit his failing; Woodward still seems oblivious to his.

In New Zealand, the French have arrived although, again, there is something deeply unsatisfactory about the likelihood of a weakened Les Bleus line-up for the first test because eight players involved in the club final played only last weekend did not arrive in New Zealand until Tuesday….proof that the French have no peer when it comes to running their own agenda.

Still New Zealand have much cause to be wary. They may have lost much of their old Gallic flair, and they now pick their team from a competition dominated by foreigners in key positions, but when they play like they are able, the French can beat anyone, no matter who they put on the field.

They shocked the All Blacks in similar circumstances four years ago, and will be out to avenge a more recent defeat, a certain match played in late 2011, when a team that had looked hopeless for much of the tournament, and were gifted passage into the final, nearly stole New Zealand’s World Cup show.

The All Blacks have introduced more new talent into their ranks, and I see that Heyneke Meyer is doing likewise with the Springboks. He has also recognised form with the selection of players like Lappies Labuschagne, Siya Kolisi and the exciting Willie le Roux.

With more modest opposition to contend with, Meyer has a chance to give his new charges some game time, whereas I suspect there will be more limited opportunities for the new All Blacks, depending on how the matches are going. France is not normally an ideal opponent to christen new players, as an 18-year-old Jonah Lomu found out in 1994.

Still the new faces are a sure sign of the start of the road to the next World Cup, and despite the mess either side of it, it is a month to look forward to.

Finally I did enjoy my week in Fiji, and to Andre and Karen Bosman, thanks for the invite guys. We were in Natadola this time, but if we’re back to our usual in Denarau next year we’ll sure come and see you. Vinaka!

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