Integrity of the competition is only part of the problem with Super Rugby's current set up. Player welfare is just as big, if not a more significant concern as four New Zealand teams battle their way through the bottleneck of competing for just one home playoff spot.

The impact of that may not be felt immediately, but at some stage in the next few months, it will be. The toll of the last six weeks and the next four is going to bite the All Blacks in some form.

The worry for coach Steve Hansen is not so much about players being injured. That's a permanent risk in rugby that no one can control. Nor is there any evidence or reason to believe that players are more or less likely to be injured depending on who they play or the importance of the game.

What's of more concern is how much mental and physical energy is drained from them as they deal with the inequity of the competition. Already, some players critical to the national cause, have endured a highly demanding last six weeks. The Hurricanes, Blues, Crusaders and Highlanders had fierce local derbies the week before the June tests. The Blues, Chiefs, Hurricanes and Crusaders were straight back into local derbies after the tests, while the Highlanders were on a long haul flight to South Africa.


This weekend will be another huge one for the four New Zealand sides that have already qualified for the playoffs. All four of the Chiefs, Highlanders, Hurricanes and Crusaders can finish top of the New Zealand Conference. It will be a knockout round before the quarter-finals. The physical and mental intensity will be extreme and won't relent until a champion has been crowned on August 6.

It's a monster block of demanding football and then it's pretty much straight into the Rugby Championship which kicks off with a test against Australia on August 20. As well conditioned and experienced as New Zealand's top players are, it's still going to be a significant challenge for them to maintain their physical and mental edge for the remainder of the season.

This is the issue that is of greater concern for Hansen - that the deeper the season goes, the harder it will be for some key players to maintain their performance at current levels. He knows he'll have to be vigilant - look for tell-tale signs that a player may just be a fraction off: that they are feeling the effects of a long season.

He'll know he has to manage workloads and occasionally make calls players won't like by resting them. But careful management will be an evil necessary as it's difficult to believe that players can sustain the pace and fury of the last six weeks to the end of November. And next year things will be worse. The leading players will have a significantly shorter offseason as a result of not finishing their test commitments until late November.