Dilemma for Springboks as Championship decision looms

Johannesburg (AFP) –


South Africa were included in the 2020 Rugby Championship fixtures released Thursday, but the world champions have several hurdles to clear before they can take part.

First, the government must lift a ban on teams from the republic competing internationally, which was introduced early this year when the coronavirus pandemic spread to southern Africa.

Then, SA Rugby officials must convince national coach Jacques Nienaber to change his stance on how many matches a player must participate in before being ready for international duty.

"If we cannot play six (domestic) matches, then I do not think we will go (to the Rugby Championship). Player well-being risks would just be too great," the coach said.

Should South Africa compete in the tournament from November 7 against hosts Australia, New Zealand and Argentina, they will do so without local-based stars meeting the six-match target.

A season halted in March by Covid-19 restarts Saturday with two matches in Pretoria between the South African Super Rugby sides, the Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers.

Cape Town hosts a Springboks trial a week later, then on October 10 a Super Rugby Unlocked competition involving the 'big four' plus the Cheetahs, Griquas and Pumas kicks off.

Even if the Springboks can delay their departure until after the third round over the weekend of October 23/24, home-based players will have played a maximum of five games.

While South African stars have been restricted to training, much of it non-contact, since the March shutdown, New Zealand and Australia staged domestic competitions.

The All Blacks and Wallabies will also benefit from two Bledisloe Cup internationals before the Rugby Championships kicks off.

- 'Financial considerations' -

"If Jacques and (director of rugby) Rassie (Erasmus) had their way, the Springboks probably would not go to the Rugby Championship this year," a senior rugby official told AFP.

"Jurie (Roux, the SA Rugby chief executive) and other officials are aware of the risks in sending an underprepared team, but financial considerations have to be taken into account."

SA Rugby sustained losses in 2016 and 2017, made small profits in the next two years, then slashed 1.2 billion rand ($70.5 mn/60.5 mn euros) off the 2020 budget due to the pandemic.

Roux acknowledged the difficult decision that must be made, saying "ultimately it will be a rugby decision... but there is an economic imperative."

While South Africa celebrated the World Cup triumph, memories remain fresh of the Springboks conceding 57 points in successive matches against New Zealand a few years ago.

Former Springboks captain Wynand Claassen says "SA Rugby must take a stand and decide what is in the best interests of the national team.

"Yes, money talks, but it is not all about money. I believe we should forget about the Rugby Championship this year," he told Johannesburg daily The Citizen.

Author and respected Business Day columnist Gavin Rich has argued for several months against competing in the four-nation competition.

"Going to the Championship with players who have played just a few games will leave them vulnerable to the kind of beatings suffered against New Zealand a few seasons ago.

"Heavy losses could undermine much of the progress that has been made in rebuilding the Springbok aura by winning the World Cup."