Uphill battle for Boks to prepare

rugby27 July 2020 06:49| © Reuters
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Springboks © Gallo Images

The Springboks face an uphill battle to be fit and ready for the upcoming Rugby Championship bio-bubble set to place in New Zealand in November.

Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber outlined as much in highlighting three phases that will have to go to plan if the Boks are to put up a competitive fight when they head to New Zealand in October.

While Australia and New Zealand have been playing competitive rugby already, the eight South African franchises only returned to training in small groups last week and it is unsure when they will be able to resume contact training.

Nienaber is understandably a worried man, as he admits that the Boks are "25% behind" where they were last season in terms of conditioning at this stage and the battle now begins to get players up to speed with the requirements for top flight rugby.

On top of this, the time is limited for competitive games before the Boks need to leave to fulfil a quarantine in New Zealand and there are still questions about their overseas-based players.

These are the three "deal-breakers" - from a purely rugby persepective - that will need to comply for the Boks to put a team onto the field in New Zealand. All three can change suddenly because of the unpredictability of the Covid-19 pandemic.

"In my head, I'm not thinking about what's going to happen in New Zealand, in my head I'm still busy with the return to play. If we mess up even one phase, it could ruin everything. We already have a lot of ground to make up and it's always difficult to admit that, but it is what it is. We are about 11 weeks behind New Zealand - almost three months behind New Zealand," Nienaber said.

Nienaber said every phase is a crucial part of the puzzle for the World Champions to be competitive when they take the field again.


"For us to go and play in the Rugby Championship, the very first thing is to get the 'return to play' right. This is getting the players back onto thenfield and to prepare them so that they are not exposed to long-term injuries.

"We have a responsibility to ensure the player has sufficient conditioning to be able to play rugby. That's why it's so important to do it right - and here we are led by government in terms of when we can move to the next stage.

"We are back in training in small groups this week and this is planned for three weeks and if we get permission and government is happy, we will move to contact training for at least a month. We will submit that request to government and if they are happy, then we will carry on.

"That's for the next seven weeks, and that going to be critical, to get players accustomed to exercise. You know, our players have not had access to gyms etc. That is phase one."


Phase two will be a competitive domestic competition - there are hopes to start at the end of August, but early September could see an eight team Currie Cup-style competition if everything goes well.

"We then want player to play at least six matches - in whatever competition there is. This is the first block. Get them on the field, get them accustomed to rugby training and then to rugby for a month, and then six matches."

"Phase two will be how the logistics will around getting our players to New Zealand and includes their isolation terms. Will we have access to gyms? Will we be allowed to train? How long will this (isolation) period be and what are the rules surrounding it? Those will be New Zealand's rules.

"The third phase will be to consult with World Rugby around regulation nine. They have now announced the window period, but we will have to work with them in respect of how big those players' groups will be. And players who play in the Northern hemisphere, and may be involved in a club final, when will they be available? And how will we be able to get those players back to us if they are playing in finals."


Nienaber said there were challenges to getting the players back to match fitness after the lockdown.

"We are about 25% behind where we were this time last year. These are not the fault of the conditioning coaches. Our lockdown was much stricter than those in other countries. We did not have access. Until level 4, you couldn't leave your home and many of our players live in apartments. They're sitting on the seventh floor of an apartment and it's a 60m2 apartment, and while he can go and exercise in the parking area, that's limited."

"Even during Level 4, you were only allowed to exercise between 6 and 9. So all they've been exposed to is road-running. The players don't currently look as good as they could after the lockdown period."


Nienaber says these six weeks of game time will be critical for the team to be able to head to New Zealand.

"It's not ideal. If the fact that we have to go and play there is commercially important for SA Rugby and the industry, to prevent everything collapsing, then six weeks is enough. I could compare it with the World Cup - you will want your players to be exposed to between 700 and 900 minutes before you go international.

"Last year we played the Rugby Championship, a warm-up match against Japan and were then ready for the World Cup in Japan. So, 800 minutes, and two to four international matches and then you are at your peak. That's normally what an international season is.

"New Zealand will play 10 matches and then two Bledisloe Cup matches. If we can't play six matches then I don't think we will go. It's just too great a burden on the players. On my side - on the field - that would be a bridge too far.

"We'll have to see how it goes with Covid. That's the frustrating part, you prepare for something, but you don't know if the day is coming, or if it's going to be postponed or if the rules are going to change. And you adapt."


Nienaber added that the Boks will not be allowing themselves to be lambs to the slaughter.

"Yes, there is a commercial aspect behind it, but we can't just let the Springboks and the country down - get there underprepared and then lose 57-0 again. That's also not fair of us.

"The commercial stuff is above my pay grade, but from our side, you have a responsibility to your country, to the brand, to the Boks and the players, to make sure we don't expose them to test rugby if they are not ready.

"It's one thing to play Super Rugby, but test rugby is something else altogether, and you have to be prepared for it. Otherwise you run a great risk of injury.

"The second thing is you have to product out there that can be competitive. It doesn't help if you guy and you're not competitive at the highest level."