Blame the IRB for spoiling the fun
There is a nettle that the International Rugby Board (IRB) refuses to grasp. It is the concept of one global season for both northern and southern hemisphere teams. The north refuses to move its showpiece Six Nations Championship, which takes place in the first three months of the year. The south cannot understand why.
In an ideal world, there would be a nine-month season, running from March to November, with players globally enjoying a three-month break to rest weary bodies. It is never going to happen. The compromise at the moment is the June international window, which opens next week. Naturally enough, being a compromise, it comes at the worst time for both southern and northern hemisphere players.
The north has just concluded its club season, which began in September. Therefore, it is time to unpack the international jerseys and engage with the southern cousins who are less than halfway through their annual commitments.
It is hardly a level playing field, which explains why the June window produces such a paucity of even contests.
England fly to New Zealand for three Tests. France will be in Australia at the same time that Wales play South Africa. Ireland are touring Argentina, and Scotland are going to the United States and Canada, before stepping out of their comfort zone to play the Springboks in Port Elizabeth on June 28.
After that match, Scotland will return home to rest for a month before beginning preparations for the new season.
Last two rounds
The Springboks, on the other hand, will go straight back to their franchises and continue with the last two rounds of log action in Super Rugby. Therefore, it is entirely understandable that Sanzar (South Africa New Zealand Australia Rugby) have petitioned the IRB to move the international window to July.
First, it would allow the north to rest its top players for a month before coming on tour. Second, it would improve their chances of winning. Third, and from a necessarily parochial point of view, it would empower the final weeks of Super Rugby.
The last point is germane right now, for the competition is deliciously poised. Former frontrunners the Chiefs have slipped to eighth on the log, whereas early season no-hopers the Hurricanes have found their mojo and moved to fifth. In the Australian section, the Brumbies have lost momentum and the Waratahs are now second on the overall log, five points behind the Sharks, but with a game in hand.
It is understandable, but still crazy, that, instead of preparing for this weekend’s matches, South Africa’s best players spent four days from Sunday at a training camp for the national side.
It so happens that both local matches this week are domestic derbies (the Cheetahs have a bye), which means the players have spent half their preparation time being nice to each other for the sake of the Boks, but on Saturday they will be back to beating each other up.
Most to lose
The Bulls have the most to lose. They can still make the play-offs but must keep winning in the hope that some of the eight teams above them will stumble. They gave nine players to the Bok camp but the Lions lost only Marnitz Boshoff. The game will be played in Johannesburg and defeat for the Bulls might just signal the end of their campaign.
The Sharks gave nine players to camp, the Stormers eight, and the teams meet at Kings Park in the late game on Saturday. Having won three out of four matches on tour in the Antipodes, the Sharks can afford a loss or two and still make the play-offs but that will be the furthest from their minds right now. Jake White’s team see a high road ahead in which they top the log and clinch a home semi followed by, hopefully, a home final.
Three wins from their remaining fixtures should settle the matter and, in a curious anomaly, two are against the Stormers. The other is against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein and, given that the two have fought it out for bottom place for most of the competition, it is hard to argue that the Sharks could have had a better draw.
All this informs the fact that, on Sunday, the competition goes into mothballs for a month. Indeed, a visitor to these shores this week might well conclude that the break has already happened, because- the major talking point has been who should take over from the injured Jean de Villiers as Springbok captain.
Coach Heyneke Meyer will put everyone out of their misery on Saturday night when he announces the reduced squad for the forthcoming internationals. Meyer has had some hard thinking to do on the leadership issue. De Villiers has been an outstanding captain and, crucially, he has stayed fit. Now he is out for eight weeks and Meyer must decide whether that is coincidence or a sign of things to come. De Villiers is 33 and will be halfway through his 35th year when the World Cup starts next October.
So is it a caretaker captain, in which case the 37-year-old Victor Matfield fits the bill, or is it the heir apparent? If it is the latter, then Bismarck du Plessis will get the armband and Adriaan Strauss, once he has served his three-week suspension, will be the second in command.
Interesting times ahead.