Super Rugby resting chaos: Uncertainty, mistakes and subterfuge?

Waratahs players catch their breath before packing a scrum against the Sunwolves Tony Feder/Getty Images

It may not quite be a dirty word like "rotation" was during Mickey Arthur's stint as Australia cricket coach, but World Cup-aiding "rest weeks" are fast becoming a key factor in this year's Super Rugby competition.

The decision to rest a player this week or that could be the difference between playing finals and missing out altogether, or earning home-ground advantage for the playoffs as opposed to flying overseas, such is the closeness of the competition nearing the halfway point of the season.

Having opted to rest Bernard Foley, Adam Ashley-Cooper and Jack Dempsey at MacDonald Jones Stadium last Friday, Waratahs coach Daryl Gibson still had the likes of skipper Michael Hooper, Kurtley Beale and Israel Folau at his disposal.

But the omission of Foley proved a huge factor in the shock result, as Mack Mason struggled badly as his replacement.

Given the Sunwolves had already beaten the Chiefs in Hamilton, and pushed the Blues and Reds into the final 10 minutes -- so, too, the Waratahs in their earlier clash -- Gibson won't have been in any confusion as to the challenge his side was up against. He refused to blame the rests as the chief reason why the Waratahs were beaten 31-29, despite the difference that Foley would have made at No. 10.

"We kind of need to," Gibson said when asked if he'd rest further Wallabies from this week's fixture against the Blues Auckland.

"We signed up for the intent to make sure our Wallaby players are in good condition for the World Cup. I'm still a supporter of that.

"At some point during the season we'll have to do that. It's about managing the squad well and managing the energy and how much people are playing and as Hoops [Hooper] said it's going to be a squad effort this year. We can't just keep putting out the same team every week."

It's not a problem confined to Australia, either; the Crusaders learned that themselves one week earlier. Having earlier delayed the return of skipper Sam Whitelock, hooker Codie Taylor and All Blacks captain Kieran Read, the Crusaders opted forced to rest Richie Mo'unga and Scott Barrett from the game against the Waratahs at the SCG in Sydney.

And just as it was with the Waratahs missing Foley, the Crusaders struggled in the absence of Mo'unga as youngster Brett Cameron endured a similarly mistake-riddled game before he was hooked with 30 minutes still to play.

"It's part of being a Super Rugby coach; we've been told, we know it's been coming for a while now, the structure of it, and we just try and do the best to manage it," Crusaders coach Scott Robertson said of the mandatory All Blacks rest weeks.

"One good thing about it is that you give other players opportunities, and those players are going to be better for the game tonight."

Perhaps that's the silver lining for Super Rugby coaches and their franchises on the whole; they're forced into exposing fringe players who may, at some stage, take on key playmaking roles into the future.

Mo'unga clearly has a lot more Super Rugby to play, but Cameron is already viewed as another long-term fly-half option.

Foley is certainly closer to the end of his Super Rugby career than the start at the Waratahs, and Mason has, for the past couple of years, been anointed his long-term successor.

The same goes for Beauden Barrett and the Hurricanes. The All Blacks No. 10 is yet to decide his future beyond this year's World Cup, with reports suggesting French clubs are prepared to offer the All Blacks star the richest contract rugby has ever seen.

Barrett was given an extended break after he was married during preseason, before resuming Super Rugby in Round 3.

After edging past the Waratahs in Round 1, the Hurricanes were blown off the paddock by the Crusaders seven days later. But Barrett's absence gave deputy Fletcher Smith the chance to start back-to-back games, the experience potentially vital for the Hurricanes should the star playmaker decide to head for Europe.

As for the resting policies themselves, they differ across Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, and seem to be open to interpretation. It was thought that All Blacks players were to be rested after five consecutive games, only for it to be confirmed recently that number was in fact six.

And if the suggestions that Rieko Ioane will play a seventh straight game this week prove correct, then byes in New Zealand may be used to reset the consecutive game count that triggers a mandatory rest period as the Blues had the week off in Round 5.

Blues subterfuge or a NZ Rugby oversight then? Stay tuned.

In Australia, there appears to be no mandate for the amount of consecutive games played; rather the four Super Rugby coaches all agreed to two separate rest weeks, on top of team byes, to help ensure Wallabies players are in the best possible condition come the World Cup September.

But it's unclear as to whether injury-enforced breaks can be used to offset mandatory rest weeks. Does David Pocock, for instance, still need to serve two rest weeks despite already missing three matches through injury?

A Wallabies spokesman confirmed to ESPN that would be open for discussion.

Many of South Africa's top players, meanwhile, have not yet been rested at all and there is confusion around how many games they are indeed required to "sit" as Springboks coach Rassie Erasmus said they would earlier this year.

Just as the Waratahs and Crusaders have learned the hard way, the Bulls, who sit second in the South African conference, could be in for a rude shock when Springboks fly-half Handre Pollard eventually takes a week off.

Erasmus also said the policy would likely be "tested" when the race for the Super Rugby playoffs started to heat up and injuries across the squads began to take a greater toll. Perhaps the rules are somewhat malleable, then?

No matter the team or county, it's far from an ideal situation for any Super Rugby coach whose ultimate responsibility is to take his franchise as deep into the season as possible.

If, however, the first seven weeks of the competition have taught us anything amid the uncertainty, it's that choosing when your first-choice fly-half takes a week off could be pivotal to Super Rugby success in 2019; so too the realisation that is no longer as simple as circling the Sunwolves on the calendar and preparing another tick in the win column.