Is New Zealand rugby paying price for not-so-super decision to dump South Africa?

There’s a theory doing the rounds in South Africa that the All Blacks’ struggles in the international game can be directly traced back to the decision to ax South African sides from Super Rugby.

You reap what you sow is the gist of the thinking, and some of the leading figures involved in the All Blacks side touring the republic for back-to-back Rugby Championship tests in Mbombela and Johannesburg did not exactly pour cold water on a school of thought that may just carry some weight.

The line from several in South Africa is that New Zealand rugby is currently paying the price for a lack of regular interaction with sides from the republic as the All Blacks struggle through a period that had seen them lose four of their most recent five tests ahead of the Rugby Championship opener in the town formerly known as Nelspruit.

South African sides were part of Super Rugby since its inception in 1996 right through to the start of 2020, before Covid-19 arrived to shut the competition down in that format.

After struggling through locals-only competitions for the rest of that year and the first part of 2021, Super Rugby resumed on a broader scale with a trans-Tasman format at the end of ’21 and then a Pacific league this year that brought in the Fijian Drua and Auckland-based Moana Pasifika, alongside the 10 franchises from New Zealand and Australia.

Much at the time was made of South Africa’s exclusion from the post-Covid landscape in the south, with initial suggestions that New Zealand Rugby had forced the decision.

The Kiwis have since countered that it was a move led by the Australians who never felt the long distances and difficult time zones justified the upside of having representation from the republic.

New Zealand teams were always energized by the challenge of playing the South Africans in Super Rugby.

Gallo Images/Getty Images

New Zealand teams were always energized by the challenge of playing the South Africans in Super Rugby.

All Blacks coach Ian Foster chose his words carefully when broached on the subject ahead of the clash at Mbombela Stadium in the early hours of Sunday (NZT).

“Wow, that’s a political question,” he said. “Do I miss playing South Africa? Yes I do. I think it’s great for us. We loved it in Super Rugby. I keep coming back to the fact that different styles, a great rivalry and intensity are all things you want to honor in your players to become better.

“Clearly Covid has changed a lot in the last two or three years, and countries have made difficult decisions. What I will say categorically is I think it’s vital for New Zealand and South Africa to stay tight in our rugby relationship.

“There is so much legacy and history in this relationship, we’ve got to make sure we keep it strong. It’s our jobs as coaches and players to make sure we go out there and do that legacy proud with the way both teams play.”

All Blacks skipper Sam Cane conceded there had been a cost to moving away from South Africa at the franchise level.

“Super Rugby is certainly different these days to pre-Covid. That’s just the reality of it,” he said. “If you speak to any of the Kiwi boys, we always enjoy playing the South Africans to test ourselves physically. Although we pride ourselves on playing skilfully, the physical side is a component of the game that a lot of our boys relish as well.”

Added Star center Rieko Ioane: “Some of the toughest games I’ve played in the black jersey have been over here. You think back to the last time we were here (2018), it went beyond the 80 minutes and we really had to dig deep. The hardest games and toughest places to play are the ones you want to be a part of.”

Veteran lock Sam Whitelock said it was a unique experience to play in South Africa, and one that added an important layer of experience. “It’s one of those spots where it’s hard to play, but that’s why I enjoy it so much.”

And right now, as the All Blacks work their way through one of their toughest periods in the last decade or more, it’s hard to deny the notion that New Zealand’s top players might be paying the price for playing less and less against the nation they’ ve always enjoyed competing against the most.

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