Johannesburg - It is that time of year again when the teams who know they are likely to be competing in the Super Rugby playoffs begin to start managing their resources and plotting ways to ensure that they are at their peak.
According to the supersport.com website, in the past there have been coaches who, knowing they are assured of a place in the playoffs, have rested their entire team in the last week of the league stage of the season in preparation. Frans Ludeke did it with the Bulls in 2010, sending a second string team to Newlands to play the Stormers. The Bulls lost that game, but won the final against the same Stormers team at Orlando Stadium two weeks later.
The Stormers did it a few years back too when they played the Sharks in a “dead rubber” final league game with a second string team, and Western Province also did it at Currie Cup level, but the more recent example of the resting in preparation for the knock-outs approach was Lions coach Johan Ackermann’s infamous - in some eyes anyway - decision to rest his first choice players for a trip to Buenos Aires to face the Jaguares 12 months ago.
The Lions lost that game and with it the opportunity to finish top of the log. That cost them what would have been a home final, though looking at it that way may be a bit simplistic - Ackermann could justifiably argue that had he not rested his players, and been forced to fly back from Argentina just a few days before their quarterfinal, they might have lost that game and not even made the semifinal.
It is a lot less complicated for Ackermann this year. He has bye week scheduled for the penultimate round, and before that a not particularly taxing home match against the Sunwolves. The last game is against the Sharks in Durban, with the 50 minute flight being a lot less demanding than the trek to Argentina. Travel is not a factor to consider as it was last year.
The Stormers and Sharks are also sure of playing in the quarter-finals, with the Sharks in a similar situation to the Lions in that they also have a bye this week. Where the Durbanites are different from the Lions and Stormers though is that they don’t yet know where they will be the week after their last league game. As winners of their respective conferences, both the Lions and the Stormers will be at home in the first round of the playoffs. The Sharks, qualifying as the next best team outside of the two pool winners, could be flying to New Zealand the next day, or waiting a week before flying to Johannesburg.
It all depends on whether the Crusaders win their final game against the Hurricanes in Wellington earlier that weekend. If they lose, and the Lions have a chance of topping the log, the Sharks might find that they are better off losing the league game against the Lions so that they finish eighth and the Lions first.
Whatever happens, with the bye nicely placed, Ackermann is unlikely to give any thought to sending a second string to Durban. If anyone is going to be second string on that final weekend, it might be the Sharks, as winning probably won't have an impact on where they play next. They might be better off losing. But the counter-argument to Robert du Preez resting players for the Lions clash is that they need momentum and they are resting in the penultimate round.
The Stormers could consider it, but assistant coach Paul Feeney has scotched any suggestion that the Cape side will go to Loftus for their tough finale against the Bulls understrength. It is not the Kiwi’s call of course, but he would be privy to the plan, and at the start of the build-up week to Saturday’s final home league game against the Sunwolves, he was adamant that the Stormers will be treating the 15 July Loftus date with the Bulls as a full dress rehearsal.
Indeed, Feeney seemed quite pleased that the Bulls found form against the Sharks this past weekend. In his view, the tougher the game is at Loftus, the better for the Stormers.
“The tougher the game is so the better it will be for us. We want the Loftus game to be a full dress rehearsal for the following week’s quarterfinal, where it will be very tough,” said Feeney.
“I know the theory about resting and having too many tough games in a row, but I think we have seen in the British and Irish Lions series against the All Blacks that a tough game can help you lift your level. I thought this past weekend’s game provided a notable lift from the previous one.
“It is a tough game that improves you, so we want a tough match. We want the Bulls to question us. If there are problem areas we want to find those out and work on them before the quarterfinal. From our point of view the bigger the Loftus game the better for our dress rehearsal.”
Where the Stormers may well rest players is for this weekend’s game as the Sunwolves shouldn’t provide much challenge even for a second string Stormers team at Newlands.