Conditioning craziness

Keo, in his News24 column, writes that it is time to crush the conditioning myth that everything about New Zealand rugby is right and everything about South African rugby is wrong.

Springbok coach Jake White earlier in the week further perpetuated the myth that New Zealand’s elite players are wrapped in cotton wool while South Africa’s are played into the ground.

It is not the case, despite protests to the contrary. South Africa’s top players are no worse off than their New Zealand counterparts.

It is a myth that New Zealand’s top All Blacks were strategically paced throughout the Super 14. They were played week in and week out as regional domination took priority over any All Blacks planning.

Richie McCaw was given two matches off in 15. Dan Carter got 40 minutes scheduled rest in 15 matches. Chris Jack got a match and a half off in 15. Rico Gear got one match off in 15. Aaron Mauger, when fit, played every game. Corey Flynn played every match.

At the Hurricanes it was no different. Jerry Collins got 60 minutes off in one match. Rodney So’oialo missed one match because of a suspension. Ma’a Nonu played every match. So too did Piri Weepu and Chris Masoe. Jason Eaton got one match off in 15.

Then we move to the Blues, Chiefs and Highlanders. Whenever their current crop of All Blacks were available, they played. Some even played when medical opinion suggested they should be resting.

During the competition All Blacks coach Graham Henry lost six players to injury. His response was that it provided an opportunity for the next player.

The Boks have also lost players to injury, but all we’ve heard is that it is because of over-playing and a lack of conditioning. Injuries are part of the international package. Deal with it and move on.

I don’t know of an international player who isn’t carrying some sort of injury. It is the nature of the sport. The body takes a beating.

Every year we hear the same old same old from the Bok conditioning team.

When the Boks got smashed at Twickenham two years ago White said his players were not big enough and not physical enough. It was nonsense. They were just not smart enough on the day. They played the wrong game plan and their bodies showed the natural fatigue associated with end of season performances.

Just a few months earlier the Boks had put 40 points past the All Blacks at Ellis Park and physically destroyed them. Bakkies Botha, Schalk Burger and the like did not become soft in three months and they did not become weaker because of the Twickenham atmosphere. But it made for a dramatic headline and took some of the emphasis off the poor game plan on the day.

Our players physically remain among the most intimidating in the game, but they are just as vulnerable as the English, New Zealand, French and Aussie players when it comes to fatigue.

Where the All Blacks have edged ahead is in their management at Test level of their players. Graham Henry has developed a squad of 30 players and he plays them all regularly. White has not, sticking with a tried and trusted combination for the last two years. While White boasts about Test caps, he curses the Test miles that come with those caps. You can’t have the cap, though, if you haven’t run the miles.

The players don’t necessarily play too much rugby. Most player associations agree that 30 matches a season is acceptable. Where rugby can’t get it right is in the off-time. A player needs three months recovery and the only window available to the Boks is for the leading players to miss the end of year tour.

Pulling them out of the Currie Cup and then playing them for a month at the end of the year defeats the purpose because there isn’t enough recovery period before the start of the Super 14. A compromise, in the best interest of the player, would be for the core group of World Cup Boks to miss the three Tests against Ireland and England in November and to also miss the first three Super 14 matches in 2007.

But let them play in the Currie Cup. The player would finish in October and have November, December and January off. In February this player gets reintroduced into the game, with a stipulated number of Super 14 matches he can play. He’s already missed three, so work on a number of eight to 10 (should his team qualify for the play-offs). He won’t be playing any Currie Cup rugby next year and on average he will play 10 international matches.

So your World Cup Bok would be looking at a work load of not more than 20 matches in 2007.

Now compare that to last year when the 2005 Test Boks averaged 28 matches and the 2005 Test All Blacks averaged 28 matches. The most played by an All Black was 33, in Chris Jack, and the most played by a Bok was 32, in John Smit.

The All Blacks are flogged as much as the Boks, probably even more when you consider their NPC is more intense than our Currie Cup.

But wild statements create an illusion that South Africa’s Boks are the only ones being exhausted through the annual schedules. This year, as an example, Bakkies Botha did not play more than 55 minutes in a Super 14 match. Compare that to Jack’s work load.

But you don’t hear Henry mouthing off about it and you don’t get the All Blacks head of conditioning giving the media 25 reasons why the All Blacks physically are lagging behind the world. They just get on with it because it is part of the game. Just like it is part of the international game that every international coach only has 10 days to work with his squad prior to the season’s first international.

The Boks are not the exception and they are not the only victims of a vicious international schedule that makes unreasonable demands on every player.

The All Blacks, to cope with these demands, expanded their squad, and started building depth in playing different combinations in Tests. But if White, for example, insists on playing John Smit in 25 successive Test matches, he must expect him to break down.

The national management blames the demands of Currie Cup and Super 14 rugby on the supposed physical frailty of their players, but they should be looking closer to home for the solution. Their insistence to play the same players week in and week out makes them more culpable than any Currie Cup or Super 14 schedule.

White cannot influence who plays when in the Currie Cup and Super 14, but he can determine the work load of his Test players in the Test season. He needs to spend more time focusing on that and less on adding to the illusion that all is honey and roses in All Blacks rugby.