- Rugby in New Zealand and Australia is set to resume soon, but South Africa remains far behind in its fight against the coronavirus.
- It could potentially leave the Springboks on the back foot in terms of preparedness when international rugby does resume.
- Jacques Nienaber, the new Springbok coach, still doesn’t know when his first assignment with the team will come.
When Jacques Nienaber was announced as the new Springbok head coach back in January, absolutely nobody was surprised.
The Boks, newly crowned world champions, were seeking continuity.
Rassie Erasmus, the mastermind behind South Africa’s stunning success in Japan last year, was to shift full-time into his director of rugby role after the World Cup – and Nienaber was the obvious head coach appointment, given the understanding and history between the two.
It was a decision that gave the Springboks an opportunity to build on what they had achieved together in 2019. This may be Nienaber’s first venture into head coaching at the highest level, but the partnership with Erasmus remains intact and that contributed towards a feeling of calm as SA Rugby and the Boks looked to take the next steps forward.
Champions of the world and ranked at the top of the pile, the Boks were set to start the Nienaber era with two Tests against Scotland and one against Georgia at home in July.
While the Scots will always pose a challenge, it represented the ideal way for Nienaber to dip his toes into the pool of international coaching. More importantly, it was a way for the Boks to build on the momentum they had gained last year.
The coronavirus crisis, though, has changed all of that.
As things stand, there is no clarity on when international rugby will resume.
The July internationals have been postponed, with reports suggesting that the match against Georgia has been cancelled.
The 2020 Rugby Championship, meanwhile, was scheduled for August, but that tournament will also be pushed back to later in the year as the fight against the coronavirus continues.
Reports out of Australia suggest that Rugby Australia is exploring the possibility of staging the entire tournament to minimise travel, and September has been identified as a possible window to do so.
Those time frames pose a potential problem for the Boks.
Domestically, South African rugby is also still some way off a return to play, though SA Rugby is hopeful that it will be able to stage a truncated version of Super Rugby on home soil.
Currently, however, none of the local franchises are training and when they do return – that is expected to be passed by the government in the next few days – they will not be allowed to engage in full contact training.
Over in New Zealand, meanwhile, domestic rugby will resume this weekend in the form of the five-team Super Rugby Aotearoa. The tournament will last 10 weeks, going into mid-August, and will be played in front of stadium spectators, given that the country has fully combated the virus.
Australia, too, are nearing a return to play on 3 July, also in the form of a five-team version of Super Rugby.
Rugby, in Australasia, is back.
It is a situation that is out of the hands of the SA Rugby leadership, but it does raise questions over how it will impact on the Springboks.
If the Rugby Championship does take place, then it could come at a time when the All Blacks and Wallabies have the distinct advantage of being fully match-fit, given their participation in their respective domestic tournaments.
At this stage, few South Africans would take issue with playing international rugby this year, especially as players and fans alike have been starved of the sport in 2020.
But for Nienaber, as he begins this new chapter in his career, the coronavirus delay has provided a unique challenge that even the most experienced of international coaches could not have prepared for.
“As the whole rugby industry in South Africa, we want to get back on the field and start playing as soon as possible, even if it’s behind closed doors,” says Stormers and Springbok prop Steven Kitshoff.
“Match fitness and game readiness when it comes to an international season will definitely play a massive role if they’ve got six or seven games behind them and we’ve only started playing.
“It’s going to have a massive influence on how prepared we are going into the international season.”
SA Rugby CEO Jurie Roux this week stressed the importance of the Springboks participating in the planned domestic tournament for August – for exactly those reasons. But, if the Rugby Championship takes place while the South African tournament is still being played, then those Boks face the very real possibility of being undercooked.
If South Africa’s tournament does take place in August, then franchises will need to get back to training now. They will, in essence, have to undergo a full pre-season of conditioning and training before they can play again.
It is looking an awfully tall order, and far from the ideal way for the Boks to hit the ground running in 2020, to solidify their status as the best on the planet.