Global rugby calendar is essential for SA players to catch their breath

MyPlayers CEO Eugene Henning believes that an aligned global rugby calendar will ease the physical and mental strain on the Springboks in the years to come.

Although the players’ organisation has worked closely with SA Rugby and the franchises to mitigate the consequences of South Africa’s never-ending season since 2021, the present situation continues to pose significant player welfare and management challenges.

These problems won’t be resolved until there is a clear separation between international and franchise rugby. An extended period of rest at the conclusion of each season is desperately needed for Bok players, whether they are based in South Africa or abroad.

SA Rugby, the franchises and all key stakeholders will reap the benefits of the Boks’ recent World Cup triumph in France. But as the focus shifts back to the United Rugby Championship (URC) – and in the long term, to the 2027 World Cup in Australia – the questions of player welfare and team performance are more pertinent than ever.

Present structure puts Boks at risk

Boks need rest

MyPlayers CEO Eugene Henning joined the Bok management team for the 2019 World Cup campaign in Japan and when the Boks successfully defended their title in France in October.. (Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images)

Henning sat down with Daily Maverick and provided a clearer picture of the present situation.

“The SA players who represent the franchises – and don’t play Test rugby – are okay. We can manage them, and the northern hemisphere has been doing that [in the European tournaments] for decades.

“The challenge comes in with our national players. They need time to mentally and physically switch off.

“They’ve had a three-week break now after the World Cup in France, but you can argue that that is insufficient. You’ve had three weeks off, and then you potentially have to go straight into a URC game in week four. So you haven’t switched off completely, because you have to be ready for that game.”

You can’t blame the franchises for wanting those World Cup winners back. Over the past three seasons, South African teams have struggled to secure results in the early stages of the URC tournament – particularly when playing in Europe – as their best players have been away on Test duty.

But as Henning suggests, that heavy workload is going to catch up with the players sooner or later.

“They’re never off; they play right through the year,” he confirms.

“The players who don’t play Test rugby have an eight-week break after the URC, so they rest well. We introduced the 32-game limit at the start of the 2022–23 season, and everyone has adhered to that.

“The national guys also have their game limit, but no ‘natural’ rest period [as they go straight from the club season into the July internationals and subsequently into the Rugby Championship, which runs from August to October]. Resting them over the course of the club season is tricky, as there may not be a time when it is ideal for both the franchise and the player.

“At the moment, there is an agreement to rest the Boks at the end of the international season for three weeks. That period has just concluded. The other five weeks in the eight-week rest period for the season are taken over February and March.

“The reason why we rest them for three weeks now is so that they can be ready for the Champions Cup or Challenge Cup games in December and January. We’ve found that February/March is the ideal period to rest them further, as that’s usually when the fewest URC games are played and the northern hemisphere is focused on the Six Nations.

“Considering the tricky calendar, it’s something that we still get to rest our players. It’s taken a lot of collaboration between the respective parties to get to this point.”

Global season ‘must happen’

Global rugby calendar

Richie Mo’unga of New Zealand tackles Damian de Allende of South Africa during the Rugby World Cup 2023 final in Saint-Denis, France. (Photo: Yoan Valat/EPA-EFE)

But make no mistake, it’s far from ideal. It’s unfair to keep pushing the players in this manner, and it’s unfair to keep asking the franchises to make extensive sacrifices.

The national team is rightly prioritised, but there will come a point when the never-ending grind compromises the players and the Boks’ performance dips.

Last month, World Rugby voted to greenlight the new Nations Championship tournament, which will be staged in alternate years when there are no World Cups or British & Irish Lions tours scheduled – starting in 2026.

Although many are opposed to the structure of that tournament, it’s hoped that the concept will pave the way for a global season, and end the club-versus-country tug-of-war that threatens to tear the sport apart.

The Six Nations will be reduced from seven to six weeks, and there are plans to shift the Rugby Championship to ensure that both regional tournaments are staged at the same time of year (February/March).

This would allow South African and Argentine Test players to enjoy a rest in August ahead of the next club season, which typically commences in late September. It would also ensure that the respective club teams have access to their Test stars at the start of the campaign, instead of losing them to the Rugby Championship.

“We must get an international calendar,” says Henning. “World Rugby should make provision for international weekends, and ensure they’re all aligned, whether you want to use them for the Six Nations, Rugby Championship, or inbound and outbound tours.

“The respective countries will decide who plays who, but the Tests have to be staged at the same time. Then the club or provincial competitions like Champions Cup and Challenge Cup, Top 14, Premiership, URC and Super Rugby are all played at the same time.

“Then you know what to expect, whether you’re a player, coach, administrator, broadcaster, commercial partner or fan. You know that this weekend is for international rugby, and that weekend is for club rugby.

“Unless we have that alignment, we will keep having to move things around, trying to make them fit. A global calendar must happen.”

RWC triumph a product of collaboration

Boks need global rugby calendar

Springbok Cheslin Kolbe claims a high ball during the 2023 Rugby World Cup final against the All Blacks. (Photo: Paul Harding/Getty Images)

Rassie Erasmus asked Henning to join the Bok management team for the duration of the 2019 World Cup campaign in Japan. The players’ representative was also part of the staff when the Boks successfully defended their title in France last month.

“The collaboration between SA Rugby, the players’ organisation, the franchises, all our commercial partners, all our fans and media stakeholders has been brilliant,” Henning says.

“The players’ organisation has been particularly well aligned with the high-performance programme of the national side, and that link with Rassie and Jacques Nienaber has been crucial.” DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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