DONAL LENIHAN: Springboks’ demise a sign of World Rugby’s deeper malaise

If last Saturday proved a pretty humbling experience for South African rugby, it wasn’t a great week for the game’s governing body, World Rugby, either.

The fallout from the report issued by that body’s technical review group in respect of the 2023 World Cup bids submitted by South Africa, France, and Ireland continued unabated, with the French and Irish delegations questioning various aspects of the findings and highlighting inaccuracies in the report.

As a consequence, regardless of the outcome of the vote by the council members of that body in London today that will ultimately decide the destination of the 2023 event, you can be sure there will be repercussions.

In addition to the continual fall from grace of a front line, proud rugby nation in South Africa, the embarrassing situation that resulted in the Samoan rugby union declaring bankruptcy while their squad was in preparation to play Scotland doesn’t reflect well on either the Samoan union or World Rugby. 

Samoa are a key rugby-playing country and anybody who tuned in to their 11-try, 44-38, thriller in Murrayfield last Saturday got a clear insight into what they bring to the global game.

World Rugby has invested heavily in Pacific Island rugby in this World Cup cycle but there are governance and financial mismanagement issues that the Samoan Union need to address. That said, the international revenue model as it stands make life difficult for the tier two nations.

The Samoan Union’s entire debt amounts to £1m. The RFU will pocket in excess of £8m from ticket sales, sponsorship, and broadcasting rights from England’s game against Samoa on Saturday week but none of that accrues to the visitors.

That pertains for all the home unions who host overseas opposition for the November international window but, on a broader scale, a more equitable solution needs to be found in order to avoid the situation Samoan rugby found themselves in this week.

South Africa’s abject failure to offer any semblance of a sustained challenge to Ireland, in keeping with their proud rugby history, also casts a shadow over the game at international level. New Zealand and South Africa have long been the powerhouses of the sport and between them share five of the eight rugby World Cup’s contested to date.

The gradual demise of the Springboks was first highlighted by their shock defeat at the hand of comparative minnow’s Japan at the 2015 World Cup. 

That should have sent the alarm bells ringing but the fact that the Springboks subsequently regrouped and lost to eventual winners New Zealand by a two-point margin in a tight semi-final only served to paper over the cracks.

How much further does South African rugby have to fall before reality hits home? With so many quality players forced abroad by a weak rand and a lack of transparency in the selection process, one wonders how long more before key players within the current set up, such as their beleaguered captain Eben Etzebeth and loose head prop Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira, look elsewhere.

Etzebeth has already turned down overtures from Toulon, who reportedly had offered him €1m per annum to join them a few seasons ago. 

You reckon by the time he returns home from what could prove a second disastrous European tour in succession, he might revisit that decision.

Rassie Erasmus faces enormous challenges in his new role as director of rugby and, unless SARU can address the numerous issues facing the game in that country, there will be no change in their rugby fortunes any time soon.

No country, not even New Zealand, could survive the type of player drain South Africa is experiencing at present. While conducting an interview with Erasmus for RTÉ in Munster rugby’s headquarters in Limerick last Friday, I came across three South African’s in Gerbrandt Grobler, Jaco Taute, and Jean Klyen doing their thing in the gym. That scenario is replicated in all the major rugby clubs dotted around Europe.

The impact of the club game in Europe and the ever increasing money available to players plying their trade in England and especially France, has started to impact majorly on the game at international level, a subject I will return to next week. Rugby has a comparatively small number of nations vying for World Cup glory and cannot afford to see any of those fall by the wayside.

The respective challenges facing South African and Samoan rugby won’t have lingered with Joe Schmidt for too long as he is already into phase two of his November plan. 

Without New Zealand or Australia to cater for in this Guinness series, Schmidt left us in no doubt in advance of last weekend’s opening test as to where his priorities lay.

“The quality of performance of some of the individuals that we’re looking to give an opportunity, that will be equally important (as winning) to us.” 

That is why he will have been so encouraged by the display’s of three relative novices in Andrew Conway, Jacob Stockdale, and Bundee Aki, along with the efficiency shown by Darren Sweetnam on his brief cameo appearance at the end on Saturday.

After working closely with Conway and Stockdale on the summer tour of the USA and Japan, he would have been encouraged with how their game is developing. To transfer that into the heat of battle against South Africa and emerge with serious credits will have pleased him no end.

Stockdale can become a permanent fixture in the side and looks nailed on to start in the upcoming Six Nations. He ticked all the boxes in defence and attack, with scope to improve even further, ever before his last-minute try sealed a great day for him.

Likewise Conway did everything asked of him but is likely to remain behind Keith Earls in the pecking order. Aki offers something different to the other centre’s available to Schmidt.

While his bone-crunching tackles provided the main highlights reel from his debut, it’s his ability to play out of the tackle and put other players into space that will become a feature in the not too distant future.

More players will be offered their chance against Fiji on Saturday with many who sat on the bench against the Springboks likely to be elevated to a starting role. Schmidt needs to work on the back-up plan at half- back and, with that in mind, I would love to see Joey Carbery start in the No 10 shirt.

He offers something special but needs to improve on his game management which will only come with more exposure to this level. 

I would also hand a starting berth to second row James Ryan and let him off. There are so many exciting young players in the system at present but they will have to be nurtured and developed with care. No better man than Schmidt to orchestrate that.

Fiji will provide an entirely different type of examination with their individual brilliance and skill set in possession offering a marked contrast to what the Springboks brought to proceedings last weekend.

The quality of the talent available to Fiji at present was highlighted by the fact that 14 of the side that started against Italy in their 19-10 defeat in Catania last Saturday currently ply their trade in either England’s Aviva Premiership or the Top14 in France.

What they lack, with so little time together as a collective, is the structure and organisation levels that Ireland carry into every test.

That will make it challenging for the South Sea Islanders but no less interesting as a spectacle.


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