Too much travel equals tired rugby, but a jaded Kiwi side is beat­able

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - LIFE -

TO­DAY’S fo­cus for the Storm­ers will be on get­ting their dress re­hearsal for next week’s Su­per Rugby play­off fix­ture right, and coach Rob­bie Fleck has done the cor­rect thing in pick­ing most of his first- choice play­ers even though the re­sult against the South­ern Kings is ir­rel­e­vant.

The Storm­ers have in the past done what the Lions are do­ing in Buenos Aires tonight by rest­ing their top team for dead- rub­ber fix­tures. They’ve achieved mixed suc­cess.

It worked for them when they played as Western Prov­ince in the Cur­rie Cup in 2014; it most em­phat­i­cally didn’t work for them last year, when they started their Su­per Rugby play­off game look­ing rusty and were buried in the first quar­ter.

If you speak to most Su­per Rugby coaches they will tell you a bye isn’t al­ways a good thing.

It takes the play­ers a good halfhour some­times to get back into the groove they were in be­fore the break. And the Storm­ers have been build­ing im­pres­sive mo­men­tum over the past two weeks.

With the first fix­ture of the sea­son against a New Zealand side com­ing into view next week, Fleck is also right when he says his team needs to step up a level in in­ten­sity against the Kings.

The penul­ti­mate round of Su­per Rugby last week, where all the Kiwi teams thrashed their Aus­tralian op­po­si­tion, brought some per­spec­tive on how much stronger the New Zealan­ders are.

While this evening’s game is im­por­tant from a get­ting- things- right- and- re­tain­ing- mo­men­tum per­spec­tive, per­haps the big­gest de­ter­mi­nant of the Storm­ers’ chances of suc­cess in the first play­off fix­ture will be the two big New Zealand der­bies that will be played this morn­ing.

The High­landers are a good team but if I was Fleck, I would be hop­ing that they lose to the Chiefs and are con­demned to un­der­take a trip to Cape Town.

That has noth­ing to do with the strengths and weak­nesses of the High­landers team, or their play­ing style, but the fly­ing hours they would have ac­cu­mu­lated in the pe­riod build­ing up to a New­lands knock- out match.

If you took the week af­ter the June break as the start­ing point, their travel sched­ule would read like this: Dunedin/ Christchurch/ Syd­ney/ Jo­han­nes­burg/ Port El­iz­a­beth/ Jo­han­nes­burg/ Sau Paulo/ Buenos Aires/ Auck­land/ Christchurch/ Dunedin/ Christchurch/ Syd­ney/ Jo­han­nes­burg/Cape Town… Phew. And I list those air­ports with­out know­ing where they may have flown to when trav­el­ling be­tween Ar­gentina and New Zealand. Ap­par­ently it is a long flight.

Given that such a travel sched­ule has to catch up with you even­tu­ally, I’d even make the Storm­ers favourites next week if the High­landers were their op­po­nents.

On a level play­ing field not, be­cause the Storm­ers don’t re­ally have the fire­power that the High­landers do, par­tic­u­larly at the back. But the na­ture of this most ar­du­ous of com­pe­ti­tions will be an equaliser and level the play­ing field.

High­landers coach Jamie Joseph has been mind­ful of it, though, which was why he rested his first- choice team when they vis­ited Port El­iz­a­beth to play the South­ern Kings two weeks ago.

The Lions should also have rested against the Kings. Their sec­ond- stringers would have been mo­ti­vated enough to win at home, and they could have se­lected a strong bench to bail them out if they did run into trou­ble.

But that is the only quib­ble I have with Jo­han Ack­er­mann’s ap­par­ently crazy de­ci­sion to gam­ble the min­i­mum of R10 mil­lion that his union would earn by host­ing a home fi­nal by send­ing an un­der­strength squad to Buenos Aires.

He now has sev­eral Boks on his books and if he wants to win the com­pe­ti­tion, which means three con­sec­u­tive tough games from next week, the top team had to rest some time.

For me, it is the flawed sys­tem rather than Ack­er­mann that is to blame for the prospect that the Lions will now prob­a­bly end up sec­ond, and thus for­feit the right to host all their re­main­ing fix­tures at El­lis Park.

Fly­ing to Ar­gentina the week be­fore a play­off fix­ture would un­de­ni­ably have put his team at a dis­ad­van­tage in that game. That would have been par­tic­u­larly so if a South African team was their op­po­nent, which would be the sce­nario if they fin­ish top of the com­bined log.

The old sys­tem, which gave the two top fin­ish­ing teams au­to­matic en­try into the semi-fi­nals was the fairer one, and the more log­i­cal one.

There should be some re­ward for ex­cel­lence dur­ing the league phase of the sea­son. As it stands, the top team could get knocked out of the com­pe­ti­tion by the team that fin­ished eighth, and that makes no sense.

More than that, though, if the or­gan­is­ers re­ally want the busi­ness end of the com­pe­ti­tion to show­case qual­ity rugby, there should be some sort of al­lowance made that pre­vents the late sea­son travel over­load that could trip up the High­landers and which has put the Lions coach be­tween a rock and a hard place.

Maybe a bye week be­fore the play­offs start to al­low vis­it­ing teams to travel and ac­cli­ma­tise prop­erly would be a good idea.

That would have the down­side of mak­ing the com­pe­ti­tion longer, but the quest for fair­ness and best- qual­ity rugby should be a San­zaar im­per­a­tive. At this point they are well short of at­tain­ing ei­ther. Too much travel equals tired rugby, not qual­ity.

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