Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: In the long haul, All Blacks need to play in South Africa

The experience Kieran Read and the ABs have gained playing in S Africa was a factor in last year's Rugby Championship win at Ellis Park. Photo / Getty
The experience Kieran Read and the ABs have gained playing in S Africa was a factor in last year's Rugby Championship win at Ellis Park. Photo / Getty

At the core of current Super Rugby talks is a dichotomy. Striking a deal that protects the welfare of players is paramount yet, it is imperative that the new structure requires New Zealand teams to play regular games in South Africa.

As much as rugby bosses here would like to reduce the time players spend away from home and travelling long-haul, the ability to live out of a suitcase and prepare for big games on limited time in foreign lands is deemed vital to the future success of the All Blacks.

Change is coming for Super Rugby - but the test programme for the foreseeable future is likely to remain similar, with the All Blacks destined to play tests in Argentina, South Africa, Australia and Europe in a 10-week block.

The Super Rugby experience of playing in South Africa is a critical tool in preparing players for the demands that lie ahead. Under the current proposal, a New Zealand Super Rugby side will also have to play in Argentina.

"It's invaluable," says All Blacks assistant coach Ian Foster. "Young players in the ITM Cup have primarily only ever played in New Zealand and through Super Rugby are exposed to long-haul travel, having to train and prepare in an unaccustomed venue and acclimatise.

"From an All Black perspective, so much of what we do is away from home. Even when we are at home, most players are still away from home because we don't play at just one venue and stay in just one place."

One initial proposal for how Super Rugby should look in 2016 had New Zealand and Australian teams playing in a transtasman division - encountering South African sides only in the play-offs. Another idea was for New Zealand teams to travel to the Republic only once every two years.

As these ideas were being mulled, the All Blacks travelled to Argentina and South Africa in last year's Four Nations and produced back-to-back wins for the second year in a row - with the 38-27 victory at Ellis Park one of the great games of the professional age.

In the debrief, many senior All Blacks are thought to have said they didn't think the team would have pulled off the victory had they not had so much experience of travelling and playing in Africa. At that point, the thinking changed on the future of Super Rugby, with New Zealand supporting only the proposals that allowed for full and meaningful engagement with South Africa.

"The excitement and the challenge of playing in South Africa hasn't gone away," says Foster. "Do our guys want to be in an airplane for the length of time it takes to get there? Probably not. But do they love playing in South Africa and want to do it? Heck, yes, so the travel is just what you have to do.

"It's exciting. Historically, there has been massive respect between the two countries and a great rivalry there. It's a great experience - the intensity of the crowds is different, the people are passionate in a different way to how they are here."

- Herald on Sunday

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