The Southern Hemisphere is set to kick off the International season this week, with the Rugby Championship getting underway. On 08 July the Springboks will host the Wallabies at Loftus at at 17:05 before attention turns to Argentina as Los Pumas host the All Blacks at Estadio Mundialista at 21:10. It promises to be a cracking first round as the sides look to prepare themselves ahead of the Rugby World Cup.
It feels like it has been ages since the Wallabies were last in South Africa and I am really looking forward to a titanic clash between the two. Whilst scrolling through rugby Twitter this weekend though, I came across a post from our favorite kiwi scribe, Ben Smith. A post which I felt needed to be dissected a little as his views on the effect of altitude are a little off the mark here.
If Ellis Park last year taught us something, altitude is not an advantage for the Boks now. Overseas-based players not used to it & many of them. If the Wallabies are fit, they can run them off the park in Pretoria (if they execute). Must play fast. Gas them in last 20.
Ronnie and I had a bit of a chat during season 2 of the Pod and we both agreed that generally speaking, or at least during 2021 and 2022 the advantage of playing at altitude was non-existent, and the reason therefor was fairly simple. Most of the Springboks play their rugby abroad and the vast majority of the locally based players ply their trade at the coast for either of the Sharks or Stormers. Simply put this meant that bar the few representatives from the Bulls (there are none from the Lions), the players had not trained at, nor played at altitude consistently enough for them to make use of the advantage.
2023 is different though. The Springbok squad has spent the whole of June training in Pretoria and surrounds at an altitude of about 1340m above sea level. You can be sure that this was well thought out by team management as the prolonged 'pre-season' the boys had would have been focused on their fitness levels. Having now had prolonged time under their belts at altitude, training here for so long, you best believe they will be looking to make use of that come the last 20 minutes against the Wallabies.
Ben for all his wisdom, failed to take this into account when tweeting over the weekend, for giving the benefit of doubt, maybe he didn't know they were based in Pretoria for so long. What the June training camp would have achieved is a fit squad that is ready to come out firing come 8 July. in 2019 the Boks were one of the fittest and strongest sides at the World Cup and this Saturday we will see if that tag can be placed upon them again. It wasn't an accident that the training camps were on the highveld and not in the Cape.
It is also a bit of a myth put forward that the Boks no longer to well at altitude. A glance at the stats paint a different picture, especially if one looks outside of the Boks v All Blacks contest. Since 2012, there have been 23 tests played at altitude with the Boks winning 16 of those (69.5%). If you take away the tests against the All Blacks, the Boks have won 16 from 18 at altitude (88.5%). Stats don't lie and up in the interior of SA, the Springboks will be content with the record the hold, proving how tough they are at altitude.
The Boks will come out firing on Saturday, but so will the Wallabies and it may just be the altitude that proves the difference in the latter stages, as kicks fly further and the lungs burn a little more. Jacques Nienaber is set to name his side on Tuesday and whichever 23 take the field, I know they will be fit, fired up and looking to get a solid win against their Aussie counterparts.