The last couple of weeks have seen a growing tide of speculation about Heyneke Meyer’s plans for the selection of a bunch of old stalwarts for the 2015 Rugby Word Cup campaign that starts in earnest now that the Super 15 is rapidly nearing it’s end.
Some are enthusiastically endorsing the Springbok coach’s focus on the older men, some are hugely disenchanted with the whole idea of bringing back the semi-retired in an almost Quixotic tilt at the RWC windmill. Some remember old dreams and past glories and are convinced that the stars of the past can revisit the victories of 1995 and 2007, others are driven to distraction by the almost incomprehensible hero worship and unremitting belief in those same stars.
Lest examine the challenge that lies before us.
On Saturday 19th September 2015, at the Brighton Community Stadium in Brighton the clock will tick over to 16h45 in the afternooon, and the whistle will sound to start South Africa’s 2015 Rugby World Cup campaign against Japan.
On Saturday 26th September, Villa Park in Birmingham will host the 2nd game of the campaign as South Africa take on Samoa.
Saturday 30th October it is the turn of St James Park in Newcastle upon Tyne and Scotland that face the Springboks.
Then on Wednesday 7th October it is the Olympic Stadium in London, and the USA.
If all goes to plan during the pool rounds, the 17th and 18th October will see the four quarter finals, after4 which just four teams will be left to move on to the semi finals on the 24th and 25th October.
Two semi-fianl losers will contest the Bronze medal final on Friday 30th October.
The final two teams, the last men standing, will play the final of the RWC on 31st October at Twickenham, in London.
And it will be all over for another four years!
Break that schedule down, and South Africa will have a minimum of 4 games to play, the pool matches. If they win through, and the likelihood is that they will, they move on to a 5th game.
If they win through in the quarters they will have at least two more games to play, the semis, and then one of the two finals.
A maximum of seven rugby tests in 42 days, perhaps 43 if the Boks make it to the final.
Another way of thinking about this challenge is that a team drawn from the 31 members of the Springbok squad will play a test match every 6 days! Seen from that purely mathematical perspective that is a pretty big challenge. Seen from a physical and mental point of view this big challenge becomes a huge challenge.
The pressure will be unrelenting.
The 31 players and the management team will be living out of suitcases in hotel rooms. During the pool rounds they move from one venue to the next, so each new rugby challenge is enhanced by the drudgery of travel in the United Kingdom. In addition to all the traveling there are such mundane matters as attending practice sessions, tactical discussions, team discussions, fitness tests, medical check-ups, video analysis of their own games and the opposition they will face next, and the constant demands of team events and functions.
Media briefings, photo opportunities, glaring camera lights and recorded sound bites for the adoring fans back home. Travelling journalists who want a piece of the action and a quiet word, travelling supporters who want that selfie with one or another of the team, or all of them if possible. Everyone wants to be seen with their heroes and wants a little bit of that glory to rub off on them too!
There is the homesickness of long distance travel, the wife and kids at home, the girlfriend, the mother and father. For some there is the worry about a farm or a business left in someone else’s hands, or some other private issue that needs attention.
Perhaps the biggest pressure of them all, the expectations of the supporters! We South Africans expect, nay, we demand that our team wins! Every player must be aware of that pressure.
There is also the personal pressure of having to perform at the highest level, the personal expectations that individuals have in themselves.
Do not for one moment think this pressure is not a factor for professional sports people. We have seen a number of international cricketers crack under the strain, we have seen a Springbok Rugby coach resign from the job because he could not take the media pressure anymore. Travelling is tough, a World Cup is tougher! Much tougher.
If the team gets to the quarterfinals the amount of travelling reduces, at least for four of the teams who head in to London, the other four need to play in Cardiff first. The semi finals, the bronze medal final and the Cup final will all be in London, so the final weeks will see a bit of residential stability, but the external pressures and expectations will ramp up considerably as the team progresses through the rounds.
Why am I talking about all these pressures when I started off by talking about the age of some of the players our national coach is likely to include in his RWC squad?
Here is the kicker:
This Rugby World Cup is going to be like no other – It will be a war of attrition!
In 2003 the Rugby World Cup kicked off on the 10th October. The Super 12 competition finished on the 24th May 2003. The Springbok squad had four months to prepare for that year’s Rugby World Cup. The Super 12 provided for a much lighter physical toll on the players prior to the Bok training camps and the start of the RWC.
In 2007 the Bok squad had a clear break after the conclusion of the old Super 14 in May. The RWC started in France on the 7th September. The Jake White and his Bok team had a full 3 months to prepare for the competition.
2011 rolled around. The new Super 15 finished on the 9th July, to allow the international teams just two months to prepare for the RWC kickoff on the 9th September. The toll of a heavy Super series and the Rugby Championships started to show.
Now we have the 2015 Rugby World Cup commencing on the 19th September. This year’s Super 15 final is scheduled for the 4th of July. Again a scant two months is allowed for preparation for the challenge of the RWC. For South Africa these two months include a warm-up game against the World XV on the 11th July, a test against Australia on the 18th July, then New Zealand on the 25th July, and then Argentina on the 8th August and again on the 15th August.
That is five tests in 36 days. Three of those are the high impact competition of the Rugby Championships against New Zealand, Australia, and Argentina!
Think on this: Our senior players will just have finished at least 14 to 16 regular season Super 15 games, a play-off, a semi-final and a final might also be included in their match tally. So somewhere between 14 and 19 really tough high intensity games before we even begin to talk about the mid-year test matches for the Boks.
The simple, scary fact is that our players will have very little time to recover and recuperate after the intense schedule of Super Rugby, followed by five tests in 36 days. Yes, they will have had some extra match practice, but the attrition rate of injuries suffered during the Super Rugby series has not had a chance to blow over yet! Already there are doubts about the fitness of the likes of Pat Lambie, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Willie le Roux, Scarra Ntubeni, and others, and this Super 15 series is not over yet!
We may fob all of this off and say that the players are professional and get paid to take the punch. This is singly the most shortsighted view I have ever heard uttered. Yes, they are professionals, and that means that they are physically stronger and more resilient than the amateurs of the past. They can take the punch. But even Muhammad Ali got knocked out a couple of times!
There is a very real issue: Players are visibly fatigued after a long, relentless Super Series. The mind might be willing, but the flesh needs a bit of time to recover. We are going into a Rugby World Cup competition with the potential of having to play seven rugby test matches in 42 or 43 days.
Turn now to the issue of taking older players along for the tournament.
The South African squad currently has 13 players who are going to be over the age of 30 if they are selected for the RWC team. That would represent 42% of a squad of 31 players! They are:
Bismarck du Plessis 31
Jannie du Plessis 32
Victor Matfield 38
Schalk Burger 33
Pierre Spies 30 when cup starts
Beast Mtawarira 30
Willem Alberts 31
Francois Louw – 30
Jean Deysel – 30
There are also a number of 29 year olds, such as Adriaan Strauss, Dean Greyling, Ryan Kankowski in the training squad.
Amongst the backs we have:
Bryan Habana – 31
Jean de Villiers – 34
Fourie du Preez – 33
Morne Steyn – 31
There are also a number of almost 30s, Lwazi Mvovo 29, JP Pietersen 29, Bjorn Basson 28,
There are certainly some advantages to having loads of experience in your team. Older heads are wiser heads; they have experienced the pressures of test match rugby and have learned how to absorb that pressure and to cope with the stress. The experienced player knows how to read a game and to understand the nuances of critical moments. He knows when he must up the pace and when he can cruise a little. Money cannot buy experience; only years of being out there in the pressure cooker of top class rugby gives you that special knowledge.
Those older men have all the experience to rely on as they absorb and react in an 80-minute game. Critically, perhaps, in a team environment, these older players are usually leaders in their departments and will have the cool minds in the fury of battle.
We know that they can do the job.
It’s whether their bodies respond as quickly and relentlessly as they used to be able to do that is really the issue here!
This brings us to the crux of my concern. There are some serious disadvantages to fielding older payers. Rugby is a tough game, and you have to be at the very peak of your physical and mental strength to perform at the highest level. Older bones, sinews, and muscles take longer and longer to recover from massive physical stress. The older player needs his ice-bath more than does the younger, he needs extra hours on the masseur’s table, he needs those anti-inflammatory and antispasmodic medications now, medicines and services he did not even know existed in his younger days.
Old injuries come back to plague the older player – the residual damage from concussions of the past are still sitting there, the scar tissue on the torn muscle, the ligaments mended and mended again. You can live with them most days, but when the strain becomes regular and repetitive, everything starts to ache.
Younger muscles and sinews retain the elasticity of youth, the suppleness and rapid recovery that seems to fade when your bones age a bit.
I have a very serious concern that some of the older men simply will not be able to sustain that peak of health, strength and concentration all the way through the very tough tour and conditions that lie ahead.
When 42% of your squad are over the age of 30 you are very likely to be facing some serious issues when those final knock-out phases of the Rugby World Cup loom ahead of you.
Not that the problem is unique to the South African rugby squad!
The All Blacks have a similar dilemma. They have their share of old bones too. Veterans Kieran Read, Liam Messum, Wyatt Crockett, Ben Franks, Tony Woodcock, Richie McCaw, Jerome Kaino, Dan Carter, Sonny Bill Williams, Cory Jane, Andy Ellis Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith are all past the 30 mark, and then there is Father Time himself, Keven Mealamu who might also get the nod into the AB squad.
This season we have seen how the likes of Carter, McCaw, Sonny Bill Williams, Cory Jane, Liam Messum, and Jerome Kaino have struggled with injury after injury. Even hard man Kieran Read has spent more time in the rehab benches than we are used to. We have remarked on how some of these iconic All Blacks are simply not playing to the lofty standards that they themselves have set during stellar careers.
Compare the squads of Wales, England, Australia, Ireland and France with the Springboks and the All Blacks, and the Northerners and one Southern country are sending a bunch of whippersnappers into battle, although they do have some of the older, wiser heads in their squads to provide the experience and the coolness under pressure. Irish lock Paul O’Connell and French flanker Thierry Dusautoir immediately come to mind.
When I think about the workload our southern players are forced to endure in the Super 15, and then in the run-up to the actual World Cup tournament, I fear that Dad’s Army may very well find that it is all a bridge too far. Those northern squads will be coming out of an off-season break, fresh and strong with nagging injuries from their last season given time to heal. They will have had time to practice together, build the cohesion that is critical in a team environment, and hone their skills with a couple of warm-up games too.
Most importantly, the UK based teams are playing at home, in an environment that they are used to and conditions which suit their game.
The Springboks and the All Blacks, perhaps the Wallabies too, are facing a massive mountain to climb if they want to bring the William Webb Ellis Trophy back to the south. I am not sure that one can climb that mountain with an overload of old men in your team.
Percentage of squad over 30
South Africa – 37%
Rugby Championship squad – 35 players: 13 over 30
Rugby Championship squad – 32 players: 11 over 30
All Blacks 30%
Rugby Championship squad – 37 players: 11 over 30
Rugby World Cup squad – 58 players: 17 over 30
Six Nations squad – 42 players: 11 over 30
Six Nations squad – 43 players: 10 over 30
Six Nations squad – 43 players: 7 over 30
Rugby Championship squad – 43 players: 7 over 30
Six Nations squad – 37 players: 5 over 30
Forwards (26): Arno Botha 23, Ruan Botha 23, Heinrich Brüssow 28, Schalk Burger 33, Nizaam Carr 24, Robbie Coetzee 26, Lood de Jager 22, Jacques du Plessis 21, Pieter-Steph du Toit 22 , Eben Etzebeth 23, Dean Greyling 29, Steven Kitshoff 23, Vincent Koch 25, Siya Kolisi 23, Lappies Labuschagne 26, Frans Malherbe 24, Victor Matfield 38, Teboho Mohoje 24, Trevor Nyakane 26, Scarra Ntubeni 24, Coenie Oosthuizen 26, Pierre Spies 30, Adriaan Strauss 29, Marcel van der Merwe 24, Duane Vermeulen 28, Warren Whiteley 27. Willem Alberts 31, Marcell Coetzee 24, Bismarck du Plessis 31, Jannie du Plessis 32, Jean Deysel 30, Lizo Gqoboka 25, Ryan Kankowski 29, Bongi Mbonambi 24, Tendai Mtawarira 30, Michael Rhodes 27, Francois Louw 30.
Backs (18): Bjorn Basson 28, Demetri Catrakilis 25, Damian de Allende 23, Juan de Jongh 27, Faf de Klerk 23, Jean de Villiers 34, Cornal Hendricks 27, Francois Hougaard 27, Elton Jantjies 24, Jesse Kriel 21, Pat Lambie 24, Willie le Roux 25, Lionel Mapoe 26, Rudy Paige 25, Handré Pollard 21, Jan Serfontein 22, Kobus van Wyk 23, Francois Venter 24. Nic Groom 25, Cheslin Kolbe 21, Lwazi Mvovo 29, JP Pietersen 29, Cobus Reinach 25, Bryan Habana 31, Fourie du Preez 33, Morne Steyn 31,