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S15 goes over the edge

Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

Cape Town – The release this week of the Super Rugby schedule for 2012 only confirms how the cream of the southern hemisphere’s rugby players are going to be flogged more mercilessly than ever before.

Is it being over-dramatic to warn the various stars who represent both franchise and country: “You know you are going to break down at some stage in the year, don’t you?”

Only extremely delicate player management and by extension harmonious, sincere collaboration between regional and national bosses is going to stave off widespread burnout and injury ... and how often does that happen to a really meaningful degree?

The Super Rugby coaches are routinely under pressure to deliver good results, including money-spinning participation in the new, 2011-engineered finals series  in a competition which seldom features “easy win” matches even in the conference phase.

And national coaches know deep down that as a consequence they will hardly be delivered suitably fresh and rested customers when Super Rugby – now facing its most drawn-out year yet in calendar terms – takes a three-week breather for inbound international fixtures in June.

South Africa’s leading players are arguably going to be the most severely-tested guinea pigs, if you like, in 2012, because our country hosts England in a three-Test series during the Super Rugby hiatus.

This is part of the International Rugby Board’s desire (and an admirable one, in principle, sparked in no small measure by public demand) to re-introduce “old-fashioned tours” to the roster.

But Springbok stalwarts are hardly going to be done any favours by being thrust straight into three-week Test mode out of a Super Rugby competition that has been on the go since February 24.

Whatever England’s limitations these days, they are still a physical, tough nut to crack, bring plenty of fans with them on tour, and any series between South Africa and the old colonial master hardly lacks needle.

And even as the Bok players nurse whatever bruises and bumps they’ve accumulated against the “Poms”, most of them will be pitched straight back into the decisive last three weekends of Super Rugby conference play.

Some comfort for the Sharks’ Bok contingent, whoever they may be next year, is that their franchise has their second bye in the week following England’s departure, but the Bok players from South Africa’s traditional other “superpowers”, the Stormers and Bulls, are not quite so lucky.

One bit of silver lining in scheduling terms for South Africa is that none of the “big three” teams will have come immediately off their four-match overseas leg ahead of the England series – at least taking away the jet-lag factor -- although the week before the Tests start, traditional rivals the Stormers and Bulls will have knocked the proverbial daylights out of each other in a Loftus derby, presumably with some Bok places on the line!

The Super Rugby season finally concludes with the final on August 4, but then the probable Four Nations enters the radar: the old Tri-Nations but with Argentina joining the party.

That competition will be contested on a home-and-away basis (thus six matches per country) and is intended to end in early October ... by which time the Springbok selectors are also starting to chew on their plans for the end-of-year tour of Europe.

The Stormers, South Africa’s best-performing Super Rugby side earlier this year, at least have the luxury in 2012 of not having the unsatisfactory bye on the opening weekend – that dubious honour goes to Aussie battlers the Rebels – and a good “spacing” of their programme next year generally.

The other South African side to make the finals series in 2011, the Sharks, play nine games on the trot at the start of the campaign, but then get some handy “feet up” opportunities, and they also don’t have to play the iconic Crusaders in 2012 (unless they meet them at the competition’s later stage).

The flip side is that the Sharks also miss out on a fixture against the Rebels, which might be regarded as a highly winnable encounter.

The Stormers won’t face the Brumbies or Chiefs in the conference phase, and the Bulls don’t square up to either of the Hurricanes or Force.

Southern hemisphere players who probably will be able to cope with next year’s first-class calendar better than others, are the ones who do not make the Test cut for their countries: that three-week period in June during the inbound tours serves as a welcome, rejuvenating breather for them.

But for Test-calibre individuals, an epic, limits-challenging year certainly looms ...

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