Rugby

Local URC coaches eager to use their Boks

23 Th11 2021 | 10:53

With the 2021 international season now at an end, the Vodacom United Rugby Championship will take centre stage for South African rugby fans and the locally based players until next June, but there is still an interesting question to ask – when is the off-season?

As the Autumn International Series was concluding this past weekend, the point was made by the commentators at both the Wales game against Australia and the later game between the All Blacks and France in Paris that the players in the two southern hemisphere teams were looking forward to a well-earned break.

And for them there will be a break. They’re sticking to the southern hemisphere rugby season in New Zealand and Australia, meaning the height of their season will be winter, and there will be an off-season for them from now until March.

But when the point was made that the Boks will next be in action when they play Wales next July, it was hard not to wonder if that would in fact be a separate season to the one they’ve been in since the local players ended a short break of just a few weeks following the January Currie Cup final. For South African rugby’s alignment with the northern season leaves a lot of uncertainty.

A Lions series, a Rugby Championship, an overseas tour and a home series against Wales all in the same season?

That’s how it stands at present, for the URC is scheduled to continue until the end of June, then there’s just a fortnight break before the Wales series starts. And at this point, the 2022 edition of the Rugby Championship is slated to start just after that.

Indeed, given that South African season is now aligned with the northern hemisphere season, meaning the 2022/2023 URC will start next September, it is not stretching it to suggest the Bok players will go into the 2023 World Cup off one marathon long season that really stretches back to the return to play from the Covid lockdown at the end of September 2020.

That is assuming that the Boks will be committed to playing the Rugby Championship in 2023. It will probably be an abbreviated version of the Championship, as it always is in a World Cup year, but the window in which it will be played will probably have to be in July, which is when the Boks should really be in off-season.

SPORADIC REST WINDOWS

In the short term the players will be getting some sporadic periods of rest due to a schedule that sees a month break for SA teams between the games played on the weekend of 3/4 December and those played on 8 January, when the local teams are due to be overseas again. There’s then another break of a few weeks before a series of local derbies start in February.

But players need a proper off-season at some point and so do the coaches if they are going to get in the work that is required to re-set between competitions. Ask any coach and he will tell you the pre-season work that he and the players get through is crucially important. Also, next year the gaps there are in the current schedule won’t be there for the local teams that make it into the European Champions Cup.

Something is clearly going to have to give, and we should be hearing more on how it is all going to fit together at some point, but the local franchise coaches will be looking forward to getting some clarity almost more than us media people and the fans.

For the South African teams know after their experiences in the first phase of the URC, which took the form of a series of four overseas games that generally didn’t go well for them, that they do need to have their Boks present and need to be at full strength to compete.

The overseas clubs take a break from URC when the Six Nations is on, so they won’t face the disadvantage of playing in the competition with understrength teams that the South Africans had to when the URC clashed with the 2021 Rugby Championship in September/October.

SHARKS AND STORMERS EAGER TO BE AT FULL COMPLEMENT

The franchise that will be most eager to have their Boks available as much as possible going forward will be the Cell C Sharks, who have the most Boks, but if you factor in Rosco Spekman, the DHL Stormers will also be welcoming back seven players when the Boks are available again.

It is not yet clear which Bok players will be available for this weekend’s round of fixtures, which is the first phase of the competition to see South African teams playing host to overseas visitors.

Given that Sbu Nkosi and Aphelele Fassi were both released early from the Bok tour once it was confirmed they wouldn’t be used in the last test against England, we can assume both those players will be part of the Sharks effort against Scarlets at Jonsson King’s Park on Saturday evening.

But will Damian Willemse, assuming he is over the concussion that forced him from the field in the opening tour match against Wales, be available for the Stormers when they host Zebre at Cape Town Stadium on Saturday afternoon?

FANS BACK THIS WEEKEND

This weekend’s round of fixtures has extra importance locally as it will be the first-time spectators have been allowed into competition games since Covid put an early end to the 2000 Super Rugby season last March. At this point the crowds are limited to 2000 vaccinated spectators, but even those small numbers will be eagerly appreciated by both the officials and the players of the relevant franchises.

The big game of the coming weekend is arguably Munster’s visit to Pretoria to play the Vodacom Bulls, just because the strength of the Irish game has been quite dramatically underlined by their national team in recent weeks and South Africa desperately needs a win over one of their top teams to gain some confidence in the competition.

But the Sharks game against the Scarlets is also an appetising one, while it is going to be interesting to see how the Cardiff Blues cope with the altitude when they visit Johannesburg on Sunday for their game against the Emirates Lions.

WEEKEND FIXTURES

Connacht v Ospreys (Galway, Friday 21.35)

Benetton v Glasgow Warriors (Treviso, Saturday 15.00)

DHL Stormers v Parma Zebre (Cape Town, Saturday 15.00)

Cell C Sharks v Scarlets (Durban, Saturday 17.30)

Dragons v Edinburgh (Newport, Saturday 19.15)

Vodacom Bulls v Munster (Pretoria, Saturday 19.45)

Leinster v Ulster (Dublin, Saturday 22.00)

Emirates Lions v Cardiff (Johannesburg, Sunday 16.00)