Black and White: Part Two
As promised in my previous article, this week I will dig deeper into the travelling schedule of some teams in the Super Rugby play-offs and see if it played any role in some of the performances and results.
Without a shadow of a doubt, the Highlanders had the toughest travelling schedule leading into the play-offs.
This was the three weeks leading into the play-off game with the Brumbies.
* Travelling schedule as per city in brackets.
1. Week 15 – Southern Kings (Dunedin – Auckland – Sydney – Johannesburg – Port Elizabeth): Won 48-18
2. Week 16 – Jaguars (Port Elizabeth – Johannesburg – Sao Paulo – Buenos Aires): Won 34-8
3. Without going into much detail on the trip to South Africa and Argentina, I don't think anyone out there will argue with the fact that it was an impressive (25-15) win against the Chiefs at home in Week 17 following a trip around the world – literally. But let's quickly look at the week returning from Argentina before facing the Chiefs: Flight from Buenos Aires are 12 midnight (24.00) on Sunday evenings and arrive only 5am (05.00) Tuesday mornings in Auckland. So the Highlanders lost a whole day crossing the time zone, or the International Date Line, where we change from one calendar day to the next. It's a direct flight of 14 hours travelling time to Auckland. Add to that the fact that Dunedin is 15 hours ahead of Buenos Aires, plus the remaining travelling time from Auckland to Dunedin. As with Johannesburg to Port Elizabeth or Johannesburg to Cape Town, the flight time from Auckland to Dunedin is just short of two hours. The Highlanders had their first team session only on the Thursday. Which was mostly recovery:
4. The trip to Canberra the week after was also successful and they walked away with a narrow (15-9) win to advance to the semifinal.
5. You just get the feeling that the travel back to SA to face an energetic, high-paced Lions team that was oozing with confidence, was perhaps just a step too far. Being physically jaded from all the travelling and a long season perhaps just caught up with them and those differences in energy levels could have been the big factor in the outcome. Split-second decision making was a bit off and not being used to playing on the Highveld will always get to your breath during the game.
6. When the Sharks learnt of their fate of having to go to Wellington to face the Hurricanes in the play-offs, they could only arrange to leave by the Tuesday. Strength and Conditioning coach, Johan Pretorius, was kind enough to provide the schedule for the week's travel.
* Tuesday afternoon: Travel to Johannesburg from Durban.
* Tuesday 7pm (19.00): Flight to Sydney (Sydney is nine hours ahead. Flight time 13 Hours)
* Wednesday 6pm (18.00): Arrive Sydney Airport for transfer to Wellington, three-hour stay-over.
* Wednesday 9pm (21.00): Depart for Wellington
* Thursday 00.30 (30 minute past midnight): Arrive in Wellington.
* Thursday 1.30am (01.30): Arrive at hotel.
* Thursday 10am (10.00): Breakfast
* Thursday 12 noon (12.00): Recovery session in pool, with movement preparation.
* Friday: Captain's run in the morning followed by a recovery session.
From the above it's clear that only one proper team training is possible during such a week. Most of the energy goes into recovery and getting rid of jet lag.
A lot of people will point to the fact that the Monday could be utilized for a hard and long session to get majority of the work done.
This, however, would be counterproductive as the long travelling and the body's adjustment to the new time zone could restrict any healing and recovery. The last thing you want is putting players at risk through your own doing.
I am sure a couple of readers on here, have in the past done a hard Gym session just before going on a vacation or travelling to a destination. How sore was your body when you got there after sitting in the car/plane?
In saying that, the Lions had a different approach leading into the game against the Jaguares in Argentina.
The decision the Lions made to not play their strongest team will be debated until the end of time.
A lot of people still feels that it cost them a home Final and inevitably what could have been a super rugby title.
But alas, it's not the point of this article to discuss that decision.
You can very easily favour a scenario where the Lions did play their strongest team and anyway ended up losing as well. Then they would have had to travel back to Johannesburg and play a Crusaders team with a bruised and battered bunch of players perhaps lacking self- belief after a loss in Argentina.
It's also worth pointing out that some of the Lions players returned from Argentina sick from a viral infection.
Can you imagine what the public would have said if the Lions did send a full strength team, lost, and then had to face the Crusaders with some key players missing because they got sick in Argentina?
Getting back to the week leading into the game in Argentina for the Lions, they followed a far more normal schedule in terms of training coupled with the hectic travelling.
* The Lions had two full days of training on the Monday and Tuesday, before travelling to Argentina the Wednesday.
* Wednesday 11am (11.00): Depart for Sao Paulo (five hours' time difference, 10 to 11 hours flight time)
* Wednesday 4.30pm (16.30): Three-hour connection on Guarulhos International Airport
* Wednesday 10pm: Arrive in Buenos Aires
* Wednesday midnight (24.00): Arrive hotel
* The boys obviously had a sleep in but also had a recovery gym session as well as a field session later on Thursday.
* Friday they had a captain's run which was more focused on recovery.
According to head of fitness of the Lions team, Ivan van Rooyen, Some of the boys really struggled with recovering from the jetlag on this trip.
This can be manifested in different ways. From struggling to get sleeping patterns in place to actually getting physically ill.
This of course puts a lot of strain on the immune system which might also explain why some players got back to South Africa carrying viral infections.
Looking at the game against the Jaguares, I must be honest in saying that the meltdown in last 20 minutes could easily have happened even with a full strength team being sent.
The Argentinian scrum is not something to frown upon, and once your scrum goes, everything else falls apart like a house of cards.
You can say with 100 percent certainty that some of the inexperienced players that came off the bench has never felt pressure in the scrum or in terms of their mental capacity like that before.
But, it could have easily happened to the regular players as well.
Be what may, the Lions bounced back beautifully against the Crusaders (won 42-25) and dished up one of the games of the season against the Highlanders (won 42-30) in the semifinal.
Travelling all the way to Wellington and playing in wet and windy circumstances – in contrast to the more familiar Highveld winter's day – was perhaps a step too far for them.
But in saying that, you do feel that it won't be the last time we will see this Lions team in a Final.
With the experience gained from all the different factors playing a role, you do get the feeling that decisions will be made in future to acclimatize as much as possible to the environment as soon as possible before a match.
Next time the Lions go to Wellington, it might just be like any other trip for them.
Perhaps the Springboks should have – before their trip to Salta – solicited some advice from the Lions on the pitfalls of arriving at and acclimatizing to your playing destination too late.
By Ethienne Reynecke
* Ethienne Reynecke is a decorated hooker who played for, amongst others, the Lions, Stormers, Saracens, Connacht and Pau – which has seen him feature in 160-odd first-class matches.