COMMENT:

Super Rugby might be a dog of a competition and it irks that the best players, more than usual this year, will be focused on self-preservation, but this sad, broken, unloved almost unlovable mess could end up being the envy of the Six Nations come October.

The one redeeming feature of Super Rugby is that it is not going to kill New Zealand's best players in World Cup year.

More specifically, the agreement New Zealand Rugby has reached with the clubs on how much they can use their All Blacks, will ensure no one is on their last legs by the time they go to Japan.

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The deal to which everyone has agreed is that those All Blacks who toured Europe in November can't play any pre-season games, they can't play more than five games consecutively, need to miss a minimum of two games in the campaign and when they are sitting out, they shouldn't train with the squad or be involved in the strategical planning.

It's not so different to what was in place last year but the intangible comes into 2019 because it has been evident in previous World Cup years that many leading players hold something back in Super Rugby.

Maybe not all campaign but certainly there has in the past been an obvious sense of the big names being a little quiet in the first half of the season.

In 2015 the All Black-laden Crusaders didn't make the play-offs – the only time that has happened in the last 17 years.

Owen Franks, Sam Whitelock, Richie McCaw, Kieran Read and Daniel Carter were all relatively subdued in Super Rugby only to be key figures for the All Blacks at the World Cup.

The fact the Highlanders who had just three All Blacks in their squad were crowned champions, tells a story in itself.

Go back to 2011 and there was another aberration when the unheralded Reds won their only title and the Blues made the last four.

Is it really a coincidence that the Highlanders and Reds, clubs that have both had their struggles, won their only titles in World Cup year?

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Sam Whitelock, Owen Franks, Richie McCaw, Kieran Read and Daniel Carter were all relatively subdued in the 2015 Super Rugby competition. Photo /Getty
Sam Whitelock, Owen Franks, Richie McCaw, Kieran Read and Daniel Carter were all relatively subdued in the 2015 Super Rugby competition. Photo /Getty

The answer is no and that's because the All Blacks have learned the art of managing players in World Cup year – of building them to peak form and fitness when it really matters.

It was the biggest lesson to absorb in the shambolic 2007 campaign which saw the All Blacks bomb out in the quarter-finals after their ill-fated decision to remove most of their squad from the first eight weeks of Super Rugby.

They may have had plenty of running in their legs at that World Cup, but they didn't have deep enough game instincts and quick enough reactions to respond to the ebb and flow of test football.

They got the balance wrong – too much conditioning, not enough playing and with that early exit came the painful realisation that rest, training and game time need to be in equal parts.

The adoption of a near-paranoid strategy to keep players off the field until the World Cup was a disaster and one that has never been repeated.

In 2011 and 2015, the All Blacks' player management strategy was impressive, particularly so in the build up to the last tournament.

They went to England with an older squad, many of whom were well into their 30s, but there was not one hint of fatigue or of key players being past it.

Those who judged the likes of McCaw and Carter in June for their average Super Rugby work ended up regretting it.

Those two in particular were following a well-considered plan to enable them to reach September 2015 in prime form and condition and they commanded the global stage with dominant performances.

This year isn't likely to be any different in respect to the likes of Franks, Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Read, Aaron Smith, Beauden Barrett and Ben Smith.

They may well look a little sketchy in the opening weeks. It might seem that the All Blacks have a problem – their best players struggling to make their presence felt while England are playing the house down in the Six Nations.

But that will be an illusionary state of affairs – a bit like believing the runner in lane eight is miles ahead before the stagger unwinds.

Super Rugby could follow a less predictable path as the Crusaders in particular could be affected by having so many players trying to manage their workloads and mental resources leading into the World Cup.

That won't do the competition any favours but it will benefit the All Blacks as they will most likely turn up in Japan with 31 blokes in prime shape while England, as deadly as they have been in recent weeks, might not have the same luxury given the notorious tyranny of their contracting world and bulging schedule.