Super tournament demands Super change

MARK KEOHANE, in his Friday Cape Argus column, writes that every coach has to change his mindset on selection to accommodate the playing demands of Super Rugby next year.

There was no conviction in the answer of any coach when asked about the new Super Rugby format but every coach had a reservation about the length of the tournament, the intensity of the local derbies and the difficulties of managing their players.

All the fears have been played out in the first 12 rounds of the competition with the tournament league structure too long and the double round of local derbies, especially in South Africa and New Zealand, brutal and not sustainable if quality – and not quantity is the name of the game.

Where no coach has got it right is in the management of their players because no coach in the competition has backed the concept of 30 players. Every coach talks the cliché that 30 players win you the tournament and not a starting XV, but in every squad there is a some distance between the first XV and the remaining fifteen and no coach has been prepared to back the principle of 30 players in the context of a league season that demands 16 unforgiving performances in 18 weeks. And that’s not counting the newly introduced play-off system that accommodates the top six teams.

Every coach in the competition applied last season’s approach to team selection and in 90 percent of the selections picked the strongest possible line-up every week.

There has been no confidence in the second string squad member to do a job, unless it has been enforced through injury to the first team regular.

It is crazy and unrealistic to expect the senior players with the Test experience to front every weekend and to perform with excellence. It also does nothing for the development of the next tier.

The Stormers coaches have been particularly naïve (some would say conservative) in their selections and it could be the undoing of their campaign in the last month.

The selections have been shortsighted, as has been the dismissive attitude of the value in bonus point wins.

Andries Bekker has been played to a standstill, as has Duane Vermeulen, and the only time a senior player has had respite is when his body has caved in. Schalk Burger, Jean de Villiers, Jaque Fourie, Bryan Habana and Peter Grant had to be injured to miss a game and no consideration was ever given to trusting tomorrow’s stars to do today’s job.

When Burger was out Pieter Louw and Nick Koster produced good performances, improved their own game and added depth to the ideal of having 30 players who could start any weekend. Deon Fourie has been more than capable in the injured Tiaan Liebenberg’s absence. Lionel Cronje has not looked out of place at flyhalf and Johan Sadie was outstanding in his first start on the wing.

Why did it need injuries to give these players a chance and why is every match approached as if it is the final? No player can sustain enthusiasm and form week in and week out for four successive months, especially not in a tournament with exhausting international travel demands.

In these types of competitions it is more pertinent to how a team finishes more than how it starts and the Stormers coaches may find themselves in the situation that come the last two rounds and the play-offs many of their first XV are crocked or running on empty.

It looks like anything between 50 and 55 points will be enough to get a top six place in the expanded Super 15 and that five or six defeats in 16 matches would be consistent with play-off qualification. If the format is to stay for 2012 and beyond then coaches (and supporters) will have to be more realistic in their approach and there has to be less romance about dominating the league stages and trying to go unbeaten.

Each coach needs to accept it won’t happen and more pragmatism needs to be applied in weekly selections. The rugby media – as the messenger and storyteller of the season – also has to apply this pragmatism and resist the hysteria that usually follows a league defeat. Teams will get beaten and it won’t be a crime to lose games.

It would also be more accurate to say a player has been dropped if he falls out of the tournament squad; not the match 22.

If coaches are true to the 30-player squad principle then they have to apply it throughout the season knowing the risk of losing games is greater but also knowing the long term reward is having a functional and conditioned squad ready to peak in the play-offs.

Listen to Mark Keohane and Cape Town-based former Welsh centre Scott Gibbs talk rugby on GoodHope FM every Saturday morning between 8 and 9am or listen to pod cast on www.keo.co.za