Peter Bills on rugby
Peter Bills is a rugby writer and commentator

Peter Bills: Give All Blacks a break, for Cup's sake

Blues Kevin Mealamu is tackled by Tanerau Latimer . Photo / Richard Robinson
Blues Kevin Mealamu is tackled by Tanerau Latimer . Photo / Richard Robinson

In the cafes of Toulouse, the pubs of Gloucester and the Indian restaurants of Leicester, they watched with increasing amazement. The rugby men of the Northern Hemisphere have one question in their minds.

Are New Zealand's top rugby players bashing each other to pulp just in time for the World Cup?

It is normally the British and French players who arrive at a World Cup in pieces. They play so much rugby in the Northern Hemisphere we're used to seeing guys who can hardly raise a gallop failing to measure up come World Cup time.

This time, it could be the other way round. The pace and physicality of the Super 15 since it began in February has to be increasingly draining these guys. For the best, and that means most of the All Blacks, it will go on for the rest of this month. The Super 15 final isn't until July 9. And then comes ... the Tri-Nations.

If a side like the Crusaders reach the final, it could be they'll have to play it in South Africa. Add on another punishing trip across the world to the general fatigue that is slowly creeping up on them like some silent assassin. By the time they get back, their best players will be about due to go into camp for the Tri-Nations.

The intensity of matches like the Crusaders v Blues on a heavy Timaru ground on Saturday night made light of unenlightened Northern Hemisphere critics who say anything played south of the equator is candyfloss rugby. The physical commitment at the breakdown, the scrums and in the loose would have had the All Black selectors grimacing.

Watching All Black World Cup forwards like Keven Mealamu, Kieran Read, Jerome Kaino and the Franks brothers smashing each other into submission may have made great viewing. But there could be a price to pay at the end of this extended competition. They could be playing into the hands of the Northern Hemisphere nations.

The season is over in the Northern Hemisphere. And apart from some warm-up games in August, matches such as France v Ireland and Wales v England, the British, Irish and French players won't be involved in anything much until the World Cup starts on September 9.

You might think that's too long without serious involvement. But most of the World Cup pool games will act as warm-ups; the standard of the early games is so low that teams a bit short of match fitness can acquire it against lower level opposition early in the tournament.

What you can't acquire, if you've used most of it up already in the season, is energy. And that threatens to place a question mark against all the leading Southern Hemisphere nations.

There may be only one answer to the dilemma facing Graham Henry, Peter de Villiers and Robbie Deans, respective coaches of the three great Southern Hemisphere nations: to totally devalue the Tri-Nations by leaving out most of the top guys to give them a chance for some rest.

Now that might upset the TV moguls who fork out millions for the right to show these games. But it's time rugby stood up against television, not just cravenly capitulated to every demand. The game has bowed to the screen for too many years and it's time it stopped.

If you manage to rest most of the top players for several weeks, there's a chance they can recharge. Otherwise, they're going to come up short somewhere and it's likely to be deep into the 6 weeks of the World Cup. Remember, even the Duracell bunny runs out of gas at some point.

When fatigue strikes, as we saw in Timaru on Saturday night, skill levels lapse and crucial errors creep in.

How else to explain the elementary dropped try-scoring passes by Andy Ellis and Luke McAlister, acts that shaped the outcome?

Dropping the star players from any All Black team is never popular with the paying customers, still less the TV bosses. But something is going to have to give somewhere this year. Otherwise, the Southern Hemisphere nations will be sending on to the field exhausted men for a World Cup semifinal or final.

That doesn't sound terribly clever to me.

- NZ Herald

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