Peter Bills: 'Boks schedule from hell to kill golden goose
What was that about killing the golden goose? Well, down in South Africa, the chiefs who run SA Rugby have the tired old bird stuffed, basted and ready for the oven. No thought there for the poor creature's suffering.
It was confirmed this week that the Springboks have had a 14-match Test programme arranged for them this year by their own union. In the last full year before the 2011 Rugby World Cup, ageing South African stars like captain John Smit, Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha will be asked to undertake a schedule from hell.
Not content with Tests this June against France and Italy (the latter a double-header) SA Rugby chiefs have agreed a request to play a one-off match against Wales in Cardiff on June 5. The following Saturday, they will meet the French in Cape Town.
The excuse given was that this year is the 10th anniversary of the opening of the Millennium Stadium and, in the words of SA Rugby president Oregan Hoskins, "the Welsh Rugby Union begged us to play. We didn't want to let them down, even though we admit it's not in our best interests."
Well, is that strictly true? Won't the South African Rugby Union (SARU), which lost an estimated 20m rand (about €1.9m) on its failed bid to host either the 2015 or 2019 Rugby World Cups, pick up a huge appearance fee for agreeing to send the World Champions Springboks to Wales? Of course they will.
But whether it's in the best interests of the South African players to turn up is another matter entirely. Once their four-match Test series programme in June is completed, they have 10 days to get themselves to Auckland, where they will play New Zealand on July 10, followed by a second Tri-Nations game against the All Blacks in Wellington just seven days later.
One week after that, South Africa play Australia in Brisbane. Then in August, they have three Tri-Nations home games, one against New Zealand, the other two against Australia.
Finally, in November, they embark upon a potential Grand Slam tour of the northern hemisphere with Test matches against Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England.
They should get home from this lunatic schedule on the last day of November, giving them December off before pre-season training for the 2011 Super 15 tournament. Mad? I'll say so.
Yet there is every indication that some of the players cannot see what it's doing to them. The esteemed Cape Town-based professor of sports science, Tim Noakes, who is a world authority in this field, was recently berated by the Springboks captain Smit for daring to suggest publicly that he was sowing the seeds of his own destruction by playing so much rugby before going on a country-wide tour to promote his autobiography last December.
Smit's view is that he can handle it all. But when Noakes presented clear evidence, backed up by graphs and statistics showing that so much rugby would greatly shorten the careers of leading players, others listened carefully.
The debate was triggered by an article I wrote for South African newspapers after the Springboks' defeat in Ireland last November. They looked done in to me; there was nothing left in the tank in that second half at Croke Park as Ireland eased to victory.
Scrum-half Fourie du Preez confessed he had felt exhausted at the end of a long year -- yet 2010 will be worse for the Springboks, having all these Test matches to play.
Noakes has forecast that many of the leading Springboks, who are being subjected to this kind of gruelling schedule, will start to fall by the wayside with injuries as 2010 progresses. Time will tell on that one, but already questions are being asked about Smit's form after his provincial franchise, The Sharks, lost their first three Super 14 matches this month.
These players are being flogged all around the world on the back of a nightmare schedule. Could it be that is something to do with their union's desire for ever greater cash flows for their business? Is this not an increasingly familiar tale in the world of professional rugby?
Ireland's players should be grateful that there appears to be much more common sense in their union. The IRFU have arranged 11 Test matches this year, plus a fixture for an Ireland XV against the Barbarians. But of the top players, the likes of Brian O'Driscoll, Rob Kearney, Jerry Flannery, Stephen Ferris, Tommy Bowe and Jamie Heaslip, I'd guess they will play no more than nine or 10 Test matches in the year.
That is enough, given the extreme physicality of this game these days. Unless, that is, you put financial profit ahead of the players' welfare. But surely, no one in world rugby would do that? Would they?