Cape Town - Is it better to have a mid-season break before the Rugby World Cup, or a breather just before the tournament starts?
That is the conundrum facing the Springboks and the other countries who form part of the United Rugby Championship (URC), compared to the French and English national sides ahead of the 2023 edition in France in September.
The defending champions from Japan 2019 didn’t have much choice but to give their top SA-based players an extended break between February and March, which will see the 14 currently in the Springbok camp return to action on the weekend of March 24/25 in the URC.
On that Friday night, the Stormers will be in Dublin to take on mighty Leinster, while on the Saturday, the Lions face Benetton in Treviso, the Sharks play the Scarlets in Llanelli, and the Bulls are in Belfast against Ulster.
But while those 14 players – and other Boks who have had some time off in recent weeks – rest up, the likes of Ireland, France, Scotland and England are engaged in the Six Nations, with the Irish unbeaten after three matches and likely to clinch the title.
That means the European teams are able to test various strategies and selections, and fine-tune their combinations well ahead of the World Cup, while the Boks are only really going to be in camp from mid-June ahead of the Rugby Championship.
The Six Nations teams will also be playing a few warm-up Tests from the end of July to the end of August, so their players will have to take a break following the conclusion of the European club season in mid-June as well.
So, do the Boks actually have the edge over their Pool B rivals Ireland and Scotland, and tournament favourites France due to their busy schedule before the World Cup?
“When we start our preparations in June, before the World Cup starts, we’ve got 11 weeks together (from June 12),” coach Jacques Nienaber said during a break in the training camp in Stellenbosch on Wednesday.
“There are three weeks of preparation for the Rugby Championship, then the three games in competition, then the three warm-up games.
“Then only does the World Cup (period) start. So, we will also have enough time going into that (working on game-plans and special plays).
“Yes, the northern hemisphere are playing now, and I think they have two rounds left of the Six Nations.
“But then they will go back and play their (English) Premiership (or French Top 14) competition, and then end their season.
“They will have their rest and development block then, where they will have to give their players a month off.”
Director of rugby Rassie Erasmus was also present, and felt that the Boks were in a reasonable position heading into France 2023.
“I won’t say better, but the way the guys have been working with MyPlayers, the CEOs and the franchises, and working out when is the resting block,” he said.
“Ours is specifically in February, and it actually works out that yes, we are not playing Test matches now, but they are emptying their tanks now in those Test matches.
“We get closer to the World Cup, and we’ve actually got Test matches at the highest competition, and we’ve got the guys pretty fresh.
“So, I’m not saying that we are in that much of a better position, but we are not in the worse-off position.”
Bok operations head Charles Wessels said that the final 33-man World Cup squad will be announced on Tuesday, August 8, and both Nienaber and Erasmus believe that the three-week training camp in Cape Town and Stellenbosch has been a vital building block for the international season.
They will host another camp, probably in May, and also interact with the overseas-based players via online meetings.
“We are coming out of a development block, which was necessary because the players haven’t had one since 2021. They had a nice break, they are rejuvenated,” Nienaber said.
“This block also gave us some time to do alignment sessions with the players on off-field stuff – where we are, where we want to be, where do we think our game is? What do we have to work on?
“We’ve got one more training session, and then the fourth week is to start training with their franchises next week, because they will start playing in two weeks’ time.
“They have to get used to the strategic plans that their franchises have for the URC, so they will have two weeks with their franchises before they go into a game.”