Taking Super lessons to heart

JON CARDINELLI writes the inaugural 15-team tournament has provided coaches with some valuable lessons with regards to future squad management and play-off qualification.

‘We’re heading into the unknown’ was the phrase favoured by Super Rugby coaches as the 2011 tournament ticked past 16 weeks. It’s certainly been a journey of discovery, and no doubt every franchise coach will do better at mapping the course of their respective sides in the 2012 competition.

While it’s out of the coaches’ control, the draw for next year’s edition is going to be crucial. Who you play and who you don’t play can influence the final standings. The team that doesn’t play the Rebels during the 2012 competition will miss an opportunity for five log points, while avoiding any one of the 2011 play-off teams could be beneficial.

Moving onto what they can control, coaches will now appreciate what it takes to finish in the top six. No side embraced the squad system during the 2011 league stages, and most of the big personnel changes were injury-enforced.

There should be greater planning for the first-phase of a 2012 competition that spans 13 games, with special attention and concession made for byes as well as travel.

Coaches say that it takes a squad to win a Super Rugby tournament, but 2012 should see this idea finally being put into practice. You won’t see players like Andries Bekker starting 15 out of 16 games next year or a stalwart of Victor Matfield’s calibre being forced to shoulder a similar workload. Teams need to contract bigger squads, and develop good alternatives for their key players.

What will complicate matters is that the format will be altered in 2012. The competition will take a break after 13 rounds as Australia, New Zealand and South Africa host inbound Test tours.

This may tempt coaches to revisit what’s worked for them in the 2010 Super 14, a competition that saw 13 league games staged before the play-offs. While there is merit in starting your best players as much as possible in the first half of the 2012 competition so as to establish a favourable log position, this policy could have long-term effects.

Many of the top players will feature for their respective teams in the Test window, and then be expected to perform at optimum in the final Super Rugby league stages and possible play-offs. It all amounts to a seven-month stint for the top players, with possibly even more minutes being accumulated than in 2011. And all of this before the Four Nations (the Tri-Nations plus Argentina) has even kicked off.

Coaches will need to adapt to yet a new structure next season, but contracting bigger squads will certainly solve the problems that have afflicted teams in 2011, and 2010 for that matter. If you play your best players into the ground, they’re not going to be around for the all-important knockout clashes.

The influence of travel also needs to be taken into account. The first game of an overseas tour as well as the first game after a tour can be testing as a team takes time to acclimatize. Better player management will ensure that teams are stronger in these games come 2012.

It will be interesting to see how Super Rugby teams adapt when the second half of the competition commences after the June Tests. The three league games could give those in a good log position an opportunity to build momentum before the play-offs. On the flipside, the break could result in a loss of rhythm for play-off hopefuls, and many teams could also be without key players who may have been injured in the June Tests.

Whichever way you look at it, every team that’s serious about winning the tournament is going to need a larger group to draw on. Planning and management has been crucial to the success of the top teams in 2011, and will be even more important in 2012.

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