Super Rugby franchises and Wallabies management will apply flexibility – and zipped lips – to the resting of star players after studying up on the lessons of the All Blacks in their last failed World Cup campaign in 2007.
The Super Rugby season was launched in Sydney on Tuesday and the standard post-summer optimism of the four Aussie franchises was firmly on show.
But, for the first time in Australian rugby, there was also a new element in the mix ahead of the Super Rugby season.
With the 2019 World Cup on the horizon, an agreement has been struck between the clubs and national coach Michael Cheika to rest top Australian players in various games in the year.
Bernard Foley called for clarity about the resting plans this week, saying he hoped “we’re not playing it by ear”.
Super Rugby kicks off next week but the exact details of the national plan remain somewhat vague. That too, it seems, is part of the plan.
Australia’s Super Rugby coaches told RUGBY.com.au on Tuesday that they’d had discussions and submitted “rough plans” with Cheika about who may rest for what games, but there would not be any set-in-stone RDO schedule.
“We have had ongoing conversations over the last couple of days, we’ve had a number of email dialogue with Michael – obviously he’s overseas at the moment – and it’s just working out when we pencil games in for players to have off,” Brumbies coach Dan McKellar said.
“And understanding that circumstances can change and injuries and that sort of thing.”
Reds coach Brad Thorn was similarly non-specific about how he’d rest players.
“We’ve had our chats around that sort of stuff, I’m not going to talk about that with you, but roughly looked around when those guys have those opportunities,” he said.
“Think about it, there’s two byes and there’s a couple of rests in there as well, 16 games, wouldn’t say it’s a huge amount of games but I’m sure they’ll be in a good space later in the year. Everyone’s agreed to work together on that stuff and we’ll just be rolling that out.”
Daryl Gibson and Dave Wessels said they’d also formed up plans with Cheika.
But far from being disorganised, it appear the opaque resting schedule is part of the overall plan.
Wessels revealed Cheika and the Aussie coaches had taken on board the findings of the independent review into New Zealand’s 2007 Rugby World Cup, where the Kiwis were beaten in the quarter-finals by France.
The NZRU had used a conditioning program in early 2007, which saw 24 All Blacks stood down for the first seven weeks of Super Rugby.
The review found the program was not well executed. It was deemed to be too “one-size-fits-all” and that some players resumed playing Super Rugby with a “dent in confidence”.
The plan was a contributing factor to Kiwis players “lacking in quality game time” by the time of the quarter-final, which they infamously lost to France.
“One of the things I spoke to Cheik about and he has done a good job of engaging all the stakeholders and talking about it. One of the things when the All Blacks lost in Marseille in 2007,” Wessels said.
“They had a big report in the aftermath of that and trying to figure out what went wrong, one of the big things to come out of that if you re-read it was the public nature of the resting program for players.
“They felt that players then subconsciously put the brakes on and didn’t compete for every moment, and as a result of that didn’t go into the World Cup humming. Cheik has recognised that.”
The Kiwis have won every World Cup since and much like New Zealand clubs do now, Australian clubs will schedule the rest periods in when it best suits their season and only publicly it at the time.
Some coaches will plan those breaks from way out with players but others, like Wessels, won’t tell them ahead of time.
“We obviously have a bit of a plan in place but if a player is not required to play, we won’t be telling him ahead of time he has that week off because we might require him to play given some injuries or something else that happened in the squad,” Wessels said.
McKellar said he would not be as concerned to keep the players in the loop.
“We’ll have conversations with the players when things are a little bit more concrete around the possible stand down periods,” he said.
“They’re senior players so I wouldn’t be concerned too much about their motivation.”
Having sat out a lot of last year injured, Reds and Wallabies centre Samu Kerevi said he didn’t want to rest too much but would abide by instructions.
“I will just roll with the punches,” Kerevi said.
“Personally, I don’t want to miss too many games, I feel like that’s where you get a lot of experiences especially those type of games against any overseas opposition, or touring.
“But I understand from a performance point of view, trying to rest us for the World Cup but hopefully that all works out and I don’t miss too many important games but this year every game’s important.”
But Wessels and Gibson said there was no way leading Wallabies could play every game this year, and be at their best in the World Cup.
“Last year KB (Kurtley Beale) played 31 games – 18 Super Rugby games for us,” Gibson said.
“We know to get the best out of him, we can’t do that.”