Peter Bills: Tri-Nations teams must decide on priorities

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The Independent Online

It is a question that has hung over Springbok coach Peter de Villiers for some months now.

Will the Springboks’ coach dare to withdraw his top players from the away leg of the Tri-Nations tournament this July, so as to give them as much rest time as possible before the long, tiring seven weeks long World Cup begins in New Zealand?

But how important is it? Well, put it this way. The answer could well determine whether South Africa make Rugby World Cup history this year by becoming the first country in the entire history of the tournament to retain the William Webb Ellis trophy.

Of course, we have been here before with the Springboks. In 2007, coach Jake White risked the wrath of the other Tri-Nations countries by taking largely a reserve squad of players for the away games in that year’s tournament.

Sure, the South Africans predictably lost, and both New Zealand and Australia were furious at the snub, especially when thousands of empty seats remained unsold in their Test grounds for the matches against a below strength ‘Boks side.

But who had the last laugh? Just three months later, the full-strength Springboks were crowned world champions, and I can’t recall many Boks’ fans moaning ‘Ja, OK sure; we won the World Cup but what about that Tri-Nations? We didn’t win that’?

The fact was, everyone had long since forgotten about it in the excitement of World Cup success. And one of the South African coaches instrumental in that controversial decision, then assistant coach Alistair Coetzee who is now coach of the Super 15 side Western Stormers, believes that present ‘Boks coach Peter de Villiers may have to consider a similar strategy this year to preserve his top men for the tournament that really matters.

Coetzee already has his worries about the physical and mental state most of the top South African players are going to be in when they arrive for the World Cup. The tournament starts on September 9 but most of the southern hemisphere boys will have been slogging away since mid-February on Super 15 duty, and have been training hard long before that.

At what cost, I asked Coetzee? He grimaced. “It will definitely be an advantage for countries like England and France to have the World Cup in September and October because they will arrive fresh. Their season does not begin until late August/early September so they will be nicely ready.

“You might wonder how match fit they will be but fresh? Yes, definitely, and fresher than us.

“But then again, how will our guys be managed? In my time with the national side under Jake White, we sent a different side to play the Tri-Nations. It was a way of keeping our top 24 players here in South Africa.

“We got criticism for doing it, I know. But you saw the outcome.”

Should Peter de Villiers do the exact same thing this July when the Springboks are due to play Tests against Australia in Sydney on July 23 and New Zealand in Wellington, one week later?

Coetzee refused to tell de Villiers what strategy he should use this year in the build-up to the World Cup. But you could tell he wasn’t about to apologise for the decision he helped take in 2007 which many observers believe was crucial in helping the ‘Boks win the tournament that mattered most.

Coyly, he did say this. “Certain players should be taken out.....of the Tri- Nations...I think. But it will be up to the Springbok management to decide whether it is for Tri-Nations or the World Cup. Which is more important”?

But the Stormers coach did offer whatever assistance he could to the national coach. “At this point in time, we will do our best to manage the players but I will leave that up to them to decide how best to manage them....when they are in camp under their control.

“We will ensure from our side we are looking after the best interests of the players. Of course, you would like all your top players playing every week, week in week out. But there will be times when there will be injuries and days when they must rest.”

Yet Coetzee does not deny all the top South African provincial coaches face a fine balancing act this year between the expectations of the franchise supporters, the demands of sponsors who want to see the best, most famous players out on the field wearing their logo-covered shirts as much as possible...and the wishes of the Springbok management who want to see most of the leading players carefully nurtured so that they don’t arrive at the World Cup exhausted.

And this, by the way, is an issue that goes far beyond just South Africa. New Zealand and Australia are equally affected.

It is a tough equation, a point Coetzee acknowledges. “A collective approach is the only way to do it” he insists. “We must make sure the franchise is not being asked to pay their dues alone and someone else will be able to reap the rewards.

“We are talking about two major competitions and we have to make sure both parties get the benefit from this approach. It is important now that players should not focus on the future. Now is the time for the franchises. We have to build teams, build momentum. Every franchise coach will feel he has to make sure he wins this tournament.

“That is our priority at present and it must be the focus of everyone.”