I WAS recently in London and, to commemorate the one-year countdown to the 2015 Rugby World Cup, one of their newspapers interviewed a panel of six rugby journalists.  Without exception, when asked who could beat the All Blacks, they said that in a normal match, nobody could, but that New Zealand’s perceived World Cup vulnerability meant that any of the teams queued up behind the All Blacks could topple them on the World Cup stage.  One even resorted to the ridiculous cliché that the All Blacks were the only team that could beat the All Blacks.

Having since seen South Africa beat them, admittedly at “fortress Ellis Park” (another cliché), even the most patriotic journalist might concede that South Africa are the team most likely to beat New Zealand in 2015. Of course, much can change in a year, and England remain, in my opinion, extremely dangerous — part of my trip to London was to visit  the English Rugby Football Union, and they have the feel of brewing something special there.  Whether it will arrive by 2015 remains to be seen.

For South Africa, the same is true.  A slow start to the Rugby Championship was gradually turned around, and there is optimism around the balance and quality of the team.  Particular praise has been given to their physical condition, something I am not all too sure was warranted — it is easy to write justifications for scoreboards after the fact, but most are bald assertions. 

The truth is we cannot know whether the team is optimally conditioned, and I doubt the margins of improvement were that large to begin with. 

A big part of Heyneke Meyer’s challenge now is to make sure that the 2015 World Cup team remains at the same physical level as they were in the Ellis Park Test.  This will require that perhaps five or six key players make it to the knockout phase of the tournament in optimal condition.  This means more than just being injury-free — it means being well-conditioned and rested, but still game-sharp and contact-ready, which is why simply resting players is not the answer.

The Springboks are together only three times a year, and even then during the Super rugby season, where physical conditioning cannot be their focus. Tactically, certainly, Meyer can work towards implementing a certain game plan, but that is not peaking, it is just progressive development.

Herein lies the dilemma. There is always talk of teams “peaking at the right time”, a response usually heard when losing.

Peaking, physiologically speaking, means managing training so that the best performances happen on the most important occasion. This is done by balancing periods of harder training with rest, so that the body is perfectly tuned for the main objective.

In the modern world of sport, this is very difficult to do, because the calendar is too long with insufficient time off to allow this typical structure. And in team sports, it is even more challenging. 

For Heyneke Meyer, I would even go so far as to say that he and his support staff are not responsible for getting the team to peak, at least not physically, given the constraints of coaching a national team.

That is, as national coach, he sees the players too infrequently to have any real influence over their physical performance. 

The Springboks are together only three times a year, and even then during the Super rugby season, where physical conditioning cannot be their focus. Tactically, certainly, Meyer can work towards implementing a certain game plan, but that is not peaking, it is just progressive development.

Similarly, the mental or psychological state of a team can improve over time, but this too is not peaking so much as improving.

The reality is that the physical aspects of winning the World Cup lie mostly outside the national coaching team’s control. 

Instead, it is the Super rugby teams who may control the destiny of the Rugby World Cup trophy, for it is they who will do the important work between December and July next year. World Cup success will thus require their contribution, at worst to “do no harm” so that Meyer and co have the best resources to work with.

It is a fragile and precarious place for a national team to be.

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