Why NZ 'head start' wouldn't faze Springboks

Jacques Nienaber (Getty Images)
Jacques Nienaber (Getty Images)

There's a light at the end of the rugby tunnel ... but perhaps it is a rumbling, in many respects, All Black freight train that leaves the current world-champion Springbok locomotive trailing rather helplessly in its wake.

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The revelation on Thursday that the Land of the Long White Cloud is scheduled to roar back out of the sporting blocks in the next few weeks - with rugby and netball at the forefront - may seem encouraging both there and more broadly on the planet, but it could present a headache for a country like South Africa, potentially still lagging a long way behind New Zealand’s success in fighting off the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is expected to announce on Monday a relaxation of the country's lockdown to "Alert Level 2" which opens up many more freedoms, including the resumption soon enough afterwards of some competitive sport.

New Zealand, earlier this week, reported no new coronavirus cases for the first time since entering a strict lockdown just over a month ago.

The major, positive trend is anticipated to enable NZ rugby bosses to get cracking with their intended all-domestic version of Super Rugby - Super Rugby Aotearoa - from the second week of June; a planned 10-week extravaganza featuring home and away clashes between the five existing major franchises there.

It could also be a cue for their great rivals "across the ditch", Australia (similarly well less affected by the ravages of Covid-19) to spring into their own form of rugby action either simultaneously or not long afterwards.

But the outlook in South Africa remains well less optimistic, even as SA Rugby clings to the precarious hope that its own, mooted domestic "comeback" competition - featuring all four Super Rugby franchises plus the Cheetahs and Kings - can also get the nod at some point in June.

That is shrouded in deeper uncertainty, however: the country is still in the grips of high-tier, Level 4 lockdown, with some sectors of the economy even harbouring fears of a return to the maximum Level 5.

Even at Level 4, South Africa remains a long way from facilitating a return to frontline sport, given the stipulation that Level 2 is required just to permit domestic, inter-provincial travel and Level 1 supposedly the passport to sporting activity.

Government and its major medical advisors have repeatedly warned publicly that the feared "peak of the curve" for the coronavirus in this country may only come in August or September.

What it could mean is that the national rugby team, itching to strut their stuff in 2020 after their slightly against-the-odds conquest at RWC 2019 in Japan last year, will be a lot less ready for major combat when (or if) the time comes later in the year to tackle arch-rivals like the All Blacks and Wallabies in the Rugby Championship.

The four-nation annual tournament is currently still scheduled for August and September, with intended, earlier Tests against Scotland now expected to be pushed back to October if possible, and with one against Georgia cancelled.

It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that New Zealand will complete their entire, own "mini-Super Rugby" before South Africa's frontline players have even had the chance to smell competitive action for the first time since orthodox Super Rugby was suspended in mid-March.

But would that be a necessary impediment to the Boks being willing to take on a presumably well less rusty New Zealand or Australia if approval for that scenario is somehow forthcoming?

Don't bet on it: the understanding I have from SA Rugby headquarters is that South Africa would make themselves ready to do battle despite any likely, glaring disadvantages.

"It is what it is," a source said, "others might get on the field earlier than us, but we want to play international rugby as soon as we can ... if we're disadvantaged, so be it. The bigger picture is more important."

Desperate times, desperate measures: the Boks will grab whatever Test exposure they can in this merciless climate, regardless of backdrop hazards.

Could you blame them?

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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