ABs reaping benefits of Kiwi system

JON CARDINELLI writes the All Blacks avoid mass injuries and burnout because the NZRU manages the country’s top players accordingly. Why can’t Saru do the same?

A good question was asked of All Blacks assistant coach Ian Foster this week. Why is it that the All Blacks seem to sustain fewer injuries than their Australian and South African counterparts?

Why is it that we are now into month 10 of the 2012 rugby season and the All Blacks aren’t missing key players because of injury and fatigue?

‘We do it differently,’ was Foster’s curt reply. ‘And I’m not going to tell you exactly what that entails.’

Foster doesn’t have to, it’s no big secret. The New Zealand Rugby Union has long looked after its most prized assets, that is its players.

Through a central-contracting system, it ensure that the cream of the crop don’t play too much rugby during the Super Rugby competition. The national team is viewed as the priority, and to compromise the success of that national team wouldn’t make much sense. Right?

Unfortunately, there is a different outlook in South Africa.

Every union and franchise looks after its own interests. Top players are contracted to a union as well as to Saru.

What this means is that a franchise has the option to start a Bok player in every Super Rugby game. Ultimately it is the franchise’s success that matters most to the franchise, not the success of the Boks.

It’s for this reason that we have players who arrive for Bok duty overplayed and fatigued. For example, Andries Bekker has long been considered indispensable to the Stormers’ Super Rugby cause, and has started the majority of the matches over the past three seasons. That workload has taken its toll on his body, and injuries have prevented him from playing more games for his country.

There are other examples across all of the South African franchises, and the point is that if South Africa employed the same system as New Zealand, the Boks may have more fit players available for the most important period of the season, that is the Rugby Championship.

The current system has been a handicap to every Springbok coach in the professional era. The system rewards the franchises when it should be geared towards propelling the Boks to that No 1 ranking. It is something that incumbent coach Heyneke Meyer has also made note of on several occasions.

On Wednesday, Meyer pointed to the example of Richie McCaw, the All Blacks captain and veteran who will enjoy a six-month sabbatical next season. This course of action will prolong McCaw’s career, and possibly allow him to play at the 2015 World Cup.

The NZRU keeps tabs on all of the All Blacks throughout the Super Rugby season, and ensures that nobody is overplayed before they join the national set-up for the June Tests or the Rugby Championship.

It’s been an intense season, the most congested in history, and still the All Blacks were able to produce their best performance of the year in Argentina. They are now in South Africa preparing for a physically taxing clash against the Boks on the Highveld, and still there is a sense that they are favourites. Why?

‘New Zealand manages their players very well,’ Meyer said on Wednesday when probed on the subject. ‘You can see what’s been done with Richie McCaw, and there are overall not as many injuries. Everybody seems to be working towards a common goal.’

Keeping players fresh allows for continuity in selection, and as Meyer suggests the All Blacks were able to win the 2011 World Cup because of that continuity. There aren’t as many injury disruptions because the NZRU is doing everything it can to prevent burnout and fatigue-related injuries.

Every South African franchise is chasing results and trophies, and every team is inclined to believe that the more they play their best players, the better their chances of achieving those lofty objectives.

And in that unfortunately all too real scenario, the national team is the biggest loser.

By Jon Cardinelli, in Johannesburg