Too much of a good thing is bad for you – the current Super Rugby set up is proof of this. There is just too much rugby being played and the players and their fans are suffering.
The duration of the rugby season in the Southern Hemisphere has increased quite radically over the last decade. Subsequently we have seen an increase in injuries and the number of players taking their careers north. The shorter season and the bulging bank balances that the north offers made the migration appealing to older players looking to wind down their careers. What is more disturbing is the number of young players joining the northern exodus. Players of a lower age bracket have been enticed and have made the move north, such as Francois Louw and Joe Pietersen. Another interesting trend, sparked by Peter Grant’s contract with the Kobelco Steelers in Japan, offers the best of both worlds for players wanting to play Super Rugby but opting to not endure the rest of the Southern Hemisphere’s drawn out rugby season.
The top South African players, on average, will only receive five to six weeks of rest per year. After their Super Rugby season – depending on whether their team has made the playoff stages or not – players receive a week’s rest before the Currie Cup tournament is in full swing. Super Rugby is arguably one of the most difficult tournaments in the world that is below test level, due to its intensity and its long duration – one week is not enough to recover from this brutal tournament. Teams who reach the playoff stages of the Currie Cup receive two to three weeks off before Super Rugby preseason training starts, with an additional two weeks off in December.
Over the last two years, the amount of injuries suffered by South African players has increased from 12 – 23% across the various franchises. Injury rates and the seriousness thereof will continue to rise if we keep on pushing our players beyond their limits. Professor Tim Noakes and his team have conducted studies that prove the link between fatigue and injury. Noakes argues that two months of solid rest (with no training) and three months of preseason training should prelude a seven-month season. A measly week or two off here and there is not enough. We are overplaying our players, subsequently shortening their careers
Admittedly, I found the Northern Hemisphere schedule confusing and somewhat frustrating at first – since they participate in two tournaments which overlap – I now see benefits. Amongst South Africans reaping the benefits is ex-Stormer, Francois Louw who is currently playing for Bath. Bath wrapped up their season in early May and will play their next match on August 17th. This means that Louw had five weeks of uninterrupted rest before joining the Springboks for the Quadrangular tournament in June and a further two weeks rest thereafter. While this does not equate to Noakes’ ideal, it is far more beneficial to what players, at the Stormers for example, are expected to endure.
Players are not the only ones suffering. Crowd attendance and even television viewership has experienced a decline. Even the most diehard supporters are losing interest in the long season and have found themselves watching fewer games, both live and on TV, than in recent years. It goes without saying that if crowd attendance plummets so will the franchise’s revenue.
The current season structure does not work. There are too many games and everybody is suffering, yet there is talk to add even more teams. If SANZAR is seriously considering this, they will have no choice but to adopt a pool structure similar to that of the World Cup or the Heineken Cup, or risk severe burnout from players and sheer boredom from the spectators.
The amount of games played throughout the year needs to be decreased dramatically or we shall see more players fleeing overseas in a desperate attempt to prolong their careers – and perhaps we may even see their fans go with them.