Alastair Hignell: Home nations must forget about the burnout factor
BURNOUT, like beauty, lies in the eye of the beholder. Burnout, unlike beauty, is set to feature heavily in accounts of the extraordinary number of rugby internationals over the next few weeks.
England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland are set to play three internationals in as many weeks at the end of seasons that began some ten months ago with warm-up fixtures for last autumn's World Cup. If, as expected, they lose more than they win, they are unlikely to avoid the soft option of blaming their failures on burnout.
If, on the other hand, they emerge successful from their southern hemisphere expeditions – England play South Africa over the next three weekends, while Wales square up to Australia, Ireland take on New Zealand over the same period, and Scotland face Fiji and Samoa after they got the whole rugbyfest under way with a remarkable 9-6 victory against Australia yesterday.
If any team has an excuse to complain of overwork, it is the Wallabies. The fixture planners have condemned them to two internationals in a week – the sort of schedule they only experience during World Cups – and although coach Robbie Deans talked about running different combinations in yesterday's fixture against Scotland in Newcastle and Saturday's showdown against Grand Slam-winners Wales in Brisbane, several of the players will have to double up. Then, at the end of their Super Rugby season, they – in common with Argentina, South Africa and New Zealand – have six Tests in eight weeks from the end of August, before three Tests in Europe during their close season.
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The chances are, though, that the word burnout will not pass Wallaby lips. The fear is that, while nobody from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales has so far mentioned it in passing, it will, by the end of the month, have become the default excuse for the respective coaches.
Of course, they all have reasons to be optimistic. Scotland may have under-performed in the Six Nations, but they beat Australia at Murrayfield in 2009 and knew that Deans was saving some of his big guns for the weekend Test against Wales. The successful ambush of Australia in the Newcastle rain was a great way for Andy Robinson's side to end their losing streak.
Now Scotland are off to play Fiji and Samoa and they should be congratulated for going where New Zealand and Australia have always been reluctant to venture.
Ireland, too, should travel with hope in their hearts. Their provinces performed well in the Heineken Cup and hosts New Zealand have had to cope with a raft of retirements since winning the World Cup, including that of coach Graham Henry. Steve Hansen steps up after spending the last eight years as Henry's assistant and has called up several new players. There are bound to be nerves and Ireland need to exploit them.
Stuart Lancaster's England have a similar opportunity in South Africa. The new coach, Heineke Meyer, has lost two key forwards, John Smit and Victor Matfield, to retirement and another two, Schalk Burger and Juan Smith, to injury.
His key playmaker, scrum-half Fourie du Preez, has ruled himself out of this Saturday's first Test in Durban, while his first selection has, so it appears, served only to fan the flames of the fierce inter-provincial rivalry that has so often bedevilled Springbok sport.
South Africa traditionally take time to gel as a team. England know that to have a realistic chance in the series, they have to start with a bang against an untried combination.
Wales have the best chance of all four home unions. Australian sides have not been performing well in the Super Rugby competition, captain James Horwill is injured and the three superstars in a highly adventurous backline are all injured. Australia could probably afford to be without one of Quade Cooper, James O'Connor and Kurtley Beale. To have all three on the sidelines for Saturday's series opener is a serious setback, especially as there is only four days' turnaround from the match against Scotland.
Wales are the Grand Slam winners, while the Ospreys are the Rabo Direct Pro12 champions. They have the forwards to trouble the Wallabies at their traditional area of weakness, the set-piece, and with debutant Harry Robinson showing his potential in last week's win over the Barbarians, they have a clutch of deadly finishers behind the scrum.
Let's hope we spend the next few weeks talking about how good Britain's best players are, rather than how tired they have become.