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