So here’s the thing. In a season that comprises 16 games, all against top opposition, with virtually no breaks in between, how do you best manage your squad without sacrificing continuity? This is the main challenge that will face John Plumtree and the other 14 Super Rugby coaches as they chase a maiden title in the expanded South Hemisphere show-piece competition.
Looking back at the Super 14, it was generally those teams who were luckiest in terms of injuries (particularly to key playmakers) who prevailed. Over the course of 13 matches, with a bye coming hopefully somewhere in the middle, you can hope to pick roughly the same team throughout, only changing a player here or there as form and fitness dictate. Squad depth was still important, of course, but the concept of rotation in the interests of keeping players fresh was not really embraced. Coaches – at least successful ones – settled on a team early and stuck with that team, by and large, throughout the competition.
Super Rugby in 2011 should, I imagine, be different and if you pay attention to the various sound bites coming from the coaches, it becomes clear that every one of them is far more concerned about depth than they were last year. Suddenly, the talk is of planning and strategy – perhaps even tactics that might see them opt to field a less experienced side in games that aren’t quite as important in terms of conference points. While the Super 14 was always pushing the envelope a little in terms of a “sprint”, there’s very little doubt that Super Rugby is very much in the “marathon” category – and one of the key differences, as any distance runner will tell you, is that you can’t afford to go flat out all the way.
Looking specifically at the Sharks, John Plumtree might, in fact, he in a slightly more fortunate position than most, in that there isn’t really a clear “starting XV” and “second XV” amongst his charges. In a squad that hovers just below the 30 player mark (too small, but I’m sure that will be addressed in time) he has very few players, if any, that would weaken the side if they were brought in. Eugene van Staden, Craig Burden, Conrad Hoffman and Luzuko Vulindlu are the only players who are a little low on Super 14 experience and I feel that the Sharks, in most positions, have at least two players who are well up to the standard required. Plumtree, in short, has better depth than most and can probably afford to change his team around more regularly and hopefully avoid fatigue and injury.
There lies the catch 22, though, because the moment you start fiddling too much – breaking up combinations week after week – you lose any vestiges of continuity. We all saw in the Currie Cup that the Sharks played their best when the same players were picked in the same positions week after week and the coach would be foolish to completely ignore that factor in the interests of keeping everybody fresh. If, however, he decides to go with a “starting VX plus reserves” sort of mentality, he does run the risk of perhaps damaging morale in the camp, with far more quality players than he can accommodate in most positions. In particular, will any of John Smit, Beast Mtawarira, or either of the du Plessis brothers be content with a bench role throughout the competition? I doubt it.
Perhaps the secret is to break the season down into a number of sections, with the aim of playing a different side in different phases of the campaign. That way, you can still allow a settled team to build up continuity over a string of 4-6 games without playing anyone into the ground. It does sort of hark back to Dick Muir’s infamous “dual squad” nightmare that cost the Sharks a place in the Currie Cup play-offs in 2005, but in that case, there was a clear first and second string. Plumtree could afford two, within reason, pick two sides of very much equal strength. It’s a risky strategy, but one that just might work.Tweet