Boks more battle-fit this year?

Heyneke Meyer (Gallo)
Heyneke Meyer (Gallo)
Cape Town – Often when Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer assembles a group of players, the exercise looks as though it is taking place in some sort of rehabilitation centre for wounded military personnel.

Admittedly that scenario applies more when he conducts regional “camps” in Super Rugby mid-competition, and he is greeted on a Sunday or Monday by an array of men walking gingerly from a brutal weekend derby or even in casts or on crutches as a signal that they will be onlookers only at whatever minor drills he may have planned.

But the situation isn’t dramatically different when he assembles his first Test squad of the season during the now-traditional June window – farcically straight off another Super Rugby weekend and with five or six days to hurriedly prepare for the first international clash.

Yet as the Boks get down to the business of trying to improve significantly in 2013 on their third-place finish in last year’s inaugural Castle Rugby Championship, there is a good chance that in most cases his players will be suitably fresh, rested and minus the customary high “niggle count”.

The advantage to no South African team featuring in the Super Rugby final, of course, is an extra week’s cocooning for Springbok troops at the business end of a competition that has controversially developed into a real slog.

Instead various Test candidates from New Zealand’s Chiefs and Australia’s Brumbies tore lumps out of each other one more time last Saturday – keep in mind that several of Jake White’s charges had also been greatly involved in the once-every-12-years demands of a British and Irish Lions series Down Under a few weeks earlier.

The situation could have at least some sort of advantage for the Boks in the four-nation competition, because in broader terms the lead-up has been so much less physically and mentally draining than in 2012 for keynote South African players.

Never mind just the absence of a SA team in the Super Rugby final this year, the entire finals series has been less burdensome because it featured only two representatives from our shores – the Cheetahs blew out at the first opportunity in Canberra, and the Bulls later in a semi – as opposed to three in 2012 (all of Sharks, Stormers and Bulls).

Just two weeks before the first Championship Test last year, against then debutants Argentina at Newlands, a haplessly globetrotting Sharks team finally succumbed to unprecedented travel fatigue in a one-sided 37-6 final loss to the Chiefs in Hamilton, after a semi at Newlands a week earlier and qualifier victory over the Reds in faraway Brisbane one week prior to that.

The inter-continental ping-pong was just too much, for a franchise which at the time understandably hogged the majority of Bok representation.

Still, in the 27-6 triumph over the Pumas in Cape Town, Meyer’s starting team was still loaded with Sharks players – including all three in the front row and all three loose forwards.

Not altogether surprisingly, that match was also to prove the fateful one where an overworked Bismarck du Plessis tore knee ligaments in the fourth minute and was sidelined for many months.

But there has been far greater opportunity for rejuvenation by various Bok stars ahead of the latest Rugby Championship campaign: their Sharks and Stormers representatives, for instance, have not been in first-class competition since July 13, giving them a five-week hiatus in total to the first match (again featuring Argentina, at FNB Stadium) on Saturday week.

A Bok insider made the valid point to Sport24 that this can carry certain drawbacks, given the potential for match fitness levels to dip a little, but it still seems an immensely preferable situation, given the crammed nature of the modern season, than entering another tournament with already knackered bodies and minds.

Bear in mind that the Stormers, given their more troubled season this year in which they were always scrambling to try to make the playoffs phase, badly over-used core players like captain Jean de Villiers (midfield depth is not a striking feature at the Cape franchise) and young lock dynamo Eben Etzebeth.

In recent weeks, this duo have been able to put in some invaluable conditioning time, well out of competition, and also train with the WP Currie Cup squad.

Of course all is seldom completely hunky-dory in preparatory terms these days for Test coaches, and Meyer has been impeded a bit in his fortnight’s programme with the latest squad by the absence until Monday of some nine overseas-based players.

But by and large his 30-strong party (21 are already well ensconced in Highveld training) should be in unusually good fettle – as they will surely need to be -- for the assault on the still world No 1-ranked All Blacks’ Championship crown.

If there is any initially-hindering rust in any of his players, Meyer will probably be quietly grateful that the Boks open with a carbon copy of last year’s first two fixtures: home and then away to the Argentinean underdogs, rather than the likely stiffer challenges of their more traditional SANZAR foes.

Whether there are start-out problems in cohesion or not at FNB Stadium, the Boks really should be firm favourites to prevail quite comfortably there on the unique Bafana/Boks sporting double-header bill.

And as for the Mendoza challenge a week on, it could be argued that South Africa got their wake-up call last year in that fortuitous draw, and may not be as prone to falling into any home-town trap this time.

Yes, I’d say the planets seem better aligned this time for a big Bok push in the 2013 Castle Rugby Championship ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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