Another Nienaber headache: his inactive Japan-based Springboks

Jacques Nienaber (Getty)
Jacques Nienaber (Getty)
  • Six current Springboks are employed by Japanese clubs who don’t kick off again until January 2021.
  • Bok coach Jacques Nienaber hopes some will be able to train with South African franchises in the interim.
  • He says all players will be on the same footing for selection, as long as they are meeting conditioning standards.

Springbok head coach Jacques Nienaber faces a plethora of challenges in readying his charges for a now likely, full Rugby Championship title defence in New Zealand toward the end of the year.

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World Rugby’s approval this week for a window - in one country - for the annual tournament from early November to mid-December at least means the new mastermind, who has kicked his heels for several months due to the coronavirus havoc on rugby, has a fresh target to aim for.

Intended mid-year home Tests against Scotland (two) and Georgia were scuppered.

Even South Africa’s domestic return to play stays shrouded in uncertainty as Covid-19 cases continue to rise in several regions of the country ... but Nienaber faces further, notable fog to his international planning with the unfavourable status of Japanese-based Springboks.

Of the victorious Bok squad at RWC 2019, half a dozen are currently contracted to clubs in Japan: Jesse Kriel (Canon Eagles), Makazole Mapimpi (NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes), Franco Mostert (Honda Heat), Willie le Roux (Toyota Verblitz), Malcolm Marx (Shining Arcs) and Kwagga Smith (Yamaha Jubilo).

Two of them - Le Roux and Mapimpi - started the World Cup showpiece match against England, while Mostert and Marx were “Bomb Squad” substitutes that memorable day.

Unlike most existing, frontline Bok players, that group have no scheduled competitive play in the period leading up to the Rugby Championship.

English- or Irish-based players like Faf de Klerk, Lood de Jager, Vincent Koch, Damian de Allende and RG Snyman will be returning to play in mid-August, and others contracted to French clubs like Handre Pollard and Cheslin Kolbe shortly enough afterwards.

Then there is the hope, albeit still a fragile one, that an SA domestic event (whether a Currie Cup or “mini-Super Rugby”) will be able to start in late August or early September.

But the Japan-based Boks are stuck in a situation where the last version of the Top League was cancelled earlier this year and a new campaign only begins in January, albeit with pre-season matches intended for December.

That means any of Nienaber’s intended players from there will be going in “cold” to the Rugby Championship after no rugby for many months.

“It’s not ideal that they won’t be exposed to rugby (in the interim period); I am actually speaking to them this afternoon and will address that challenge,” Nienaber told Sport24 on Thursday.

“But they are among the various Bok players who are in constant communication with our strength and conditioning people.

“Five of them are in South Africa right now. Only Franco is still in the UK (after ending his Gloucester deal - Sport24) and what we hope is that their clubs will allow them to train for a while with a South African franchise.

“But there are other deal-breakers, like the fact that their contracts must be insured, and also whether our franchises will be willing to have them train even while knowing they’re not involved on the playing side.”

Nienaber is hopeful that someone like Mapimpi, one of the individual stars of the World Cup final, will be able to hook up reasonably seamlessly with Sharks training, given that he is effectively on a sabbatical to Japan and expected to rejoin the Sharks from next April anyway.

He stressed that the six would face no selection prejudice on the grounds that they will have been dormant in match-play by the time the Championship comes around.

“They are not guys who struggle with athleticism. Besides, we had a global meeting in lockdown with all the players ... they all know in these uncertain times that the biggest way not be deselected would be to maintain strong conditioning (standards).

“Everybody will be on the same footing selection-wise.”

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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