The Lions’ progression as possibly the only South African side to qualify for the Super Rugby playoffs could be a blessing in disguise for the Boks, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
At the post-match press conference following the Springboks’ third and final Test against England in June, Bok coach Rassie Erasmus was asked to turn his attention towards the team’s readiness for the Rugby Championship, and their long-term plans with the World Cup in mind.
As a wry smile spread across his face, Erasmus sought to explain the delicate balancing act that needed to be conducted to ensure that the correct players continued to be carefully selected, integrated and managed to ensure a confident, well-conditioned squad is ready by the time the the 2019 World Cup rolls around.
With a nod towards captain Siya Kolisi seated alongside him at the time, Erasmus noted how such a player was desperately in need of a rest after carrying a heavy workload throughout the year.
A few days later, though, Kolisi was on board a flight to Argentina for the Stormers’ crucial clash against the Jaguares. The fact is, he certainly wasn’t the only one as the Super Rugby head coaches generally sent their returning Boks straight back into frontline action.
It’s a familiar story of the Super Rugby franchises – who pay big salaries for the services of their Boks – having every right to get the most out of their players, especially as most continued to fight for a place in the playoffs.
In a strange sense then, the Bok coaching group might be secretly relieved to see that national players from the Stormers and Bulls will at least be afforded somewhat of a rest in the coming weeks after the two teams failed to make the Super Rugby playoffs.
From a national perspective, there is no doubt that a well-deserved rest for the likes of Kolisi, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Damian de Allende will be warmly welcomed over what could have been a long-haul trip overseas for an away playoff.
Similarly, the Bulls’ failure to qualify for the knockout stage will allow Boks such as Handré Pollard, Jesse Kriel, Warrick Gelant and RG Snyman to take some time off and recharge their batteries ahead of the Rugby Championship.
Then there’s the Sharks. They need the Highlanders to beat the Rebels, and then to claim a win of their own over the Jaguares this Saturday. That would see them sneak into the playoffs as the eighth-placed qualifier, but even that would leave them with a knockout date against the Crusaders in Christchurch.
It’s nigh impossible to see their season going any further than another fortnight at best, which would allow the likes of Beast Mtawarira, Akker van der Merwe, Thomas du Toit, S’bu Nkosi, André Esterhuizen and Lukhanyo Am an opportunity to put up their feet for a bit.
That leaves the Lions, who now look likely to secure a home quarter-final. It means there will be a bit more rugby for Franco Mostert, Aphiwe Dyantyi and Elton Jantjies, but on the flipside, fit-again Malcolm Marx and Warren Whiteley will welcome the chance to get some more game-time under the belt.
All in all, the one silver lining to the mediocrity of the South African Super Rugby challenge this season is that it has afforded some Boks an enforced rest, while making Erasmus’ player management balancing act just that little bit easier.
The Boks will kick-off their Rugby Championship campaign against Argentina on 18 August, with the opportunity now for several players to freshen up, while Erasmus should soon be able to begin pre-season work with the majority of his squad.
It’s a slight advantage that the Boks may hold over their All Blacks counterparts, with an all-New Zealand Super Rugby final looking like a high probability on 4 August.
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