Queensland Reds coach Ewen McKenzie. Photo: Getty Images
“We're just going to take it one week at a time, mate.” It's the oldest of adages in sport – cliched, yes, but also relevant, although perhaps not as relevant as it used to be with the Reds and Force signing off for four weeks' break from Super Rugby and the Brumbies, Rebels and Waratahs taking three after next weekend.
From a Super Rugby perspective the impending hiatus for the June internationals against the Scottish and Welsh may be good for some, like the injured James Horwill, but it could also create problems for others.
Take the Reds and the Brumbies, for example, the two combatants in the crux match of the round in the Australian conference, won 13-12 by the Reds in a nail-biting finish.
Has this break come at the right time? On the whole, while not particularly useful for either side as there is strength in continuity, it might be most advantageous for the Brumbies, depending on how many of their players are called up for Wallaby duty.
Regardless, the break will be a catalyst for some tough conversations. With Super Rugby clubs basing success only on their own results and Test performances not falling within their KPIs, there will inevitably be conflict. The main issue is how the conflict is anticipated and dealt with.
One of the difficulties is that most of the judgments from the Super Rugby clubs' perspective will be neither black nor white. Such is life. It rarely operates in absolutes but more regularly potters in the grey.
For example, players rarely operate at 100 per cent fitness. There are always bumps and
bruises, if not worse, and a three-week window would provide the perfect time to freshen up for a charge to the finals. However, Wallabies selection remains the ultimate achievement for an Australian player.
Playing Test matches for your country is the pinnacle. It is why the International Rugby Board has regulations – designed more for European nations than our own – that ensure selection for country always takes priority over any other level of the game. We must always
protect the sanctity, integrity and importance of Test rugby. The best players must be seen all the time.
The players may then find themselves in a tug of war not of their making or liking. Managing this break, from a talent perspective, requires a nationally co-ordinated solution with regional accountability, a decent measure of good faith and a large amount of collaboration. It also demands that players are mature in the decisions they make about their own bodies.
And that must be at the heart of all decisions from all parties; the welfare of the player. For if you do not consider welfare in the short term, everyone will suffer in the long term.
Compounding the problem for Super Rugby teams is that they will be more heavily impacted if they lose a star player, compared with the Wallabies, as the national team has more resources to call upon in time of need.
When it comes to solutions, the experience of Ewen McKenzie and Jake White should come to the fore.
McKenzie was quick out of the blocks in anticipation and scheduled a match for the Reds against the Hurricanes on the Sunshine Coast on Friday, June 15. This could be the perfect pulse after their vital victory over the Brumbies as it serves multiple purposes.
First, it provides those not involved in the Tests a tough encounter between matches to help preserve the rhythm and match fitness of the team.
Also, it importantly gives McKenzie and his coaching staff a sight of a potential play-off contender while promoting the Reds on the Sunshine Coast, an area starved of high-quality rugby.
Whatever the tactics employed this year, the antennae will be out and the most successful measures shamelessly plagiarised in 2013.
It might even be opportune to turn to rugby league to find out what hasn't worked in the past for sides like the Broncos and the Storm as they have traditionally struggled with the similar demands of Origin.
When Super Rugby resumes in July ultimate success is going to require a bit more luck and some better, more creative management than usual. But get used to it. That is now the new norm.
- John Eales is a board member of the ARU.