• Game changer

    SA Rugby hopes that a new player-management approach will raise the standard at national and Super Rugby level. By Jon Cardinelli
    Game changer

    The Springboks won the Rugby Championship this past August to end South African rugby’s 10-year trophy drought in international tournaments. That success provided the Boks with a much-needed confidence boost heading into a more challenging World Cup campaign in Japan.

    One Rugby Championship title in 10 years, however, is a poor return. During this period, South Africa’s franchises combined – or more specifically, the Bulls – took home only two Super Rugby titles. While the recent success indicates that some progress has been made, further steps need to be taken to ensure that the national team and the Super Rugby teams continue to grow.

    Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus, who doubles as South Africa’s director of rugby, was quick to make this point following his side’s title-clinching win against Argentina in Salta. While the World Cup is in focus this year, Erasmus and several other stakeholders have formulated a long-term plan aimed at raising the standards and retaining top players ahead of the next global showpiece in 2023.

    SA Rugby and the franchises cannot match the salaries offered by wealthy European and Japanese clubs, and they cannot stop high-profile Springboks taking up contracts abroad. They can, however, come together to create a system aimed at keeping more of the top Super Rugby players in the country to strengthen the local player base.

    As Erasmus reiterated during the unveiling of the new contracting model, SA Rugby and the franchises have to work together to keep the next tier of players in South Africa, and to develop the stars of tomorrow. The fact that everybody is on board with the new plan marks an important first step, as does the agreement to cap squad sizes and player budgets.

    In essence, SA Rugby will no longer directly contract the Springboks. It hopes that the new model will improve the financial sustainability of unions by controlling budgets and sharing the Springbok payment budget through the unions to a bigger pool of players.

    ‘We’ve done a lot of homework to come up with what we believe will be a more successful model,’ says Erasmus. ‘In the past, SA Rugby contracted between 13 and 20 players with the aim of keeping them in South Africa. Our return on investment wasn’t good enough. You’d get three or four players going down with injuries and then your budget would be gone. You had only a few players left standing, and that eventually impacted on results.’

    SA Rugby is prepared to let big-name players go overseas, and use the money saved to fund more and younger players.

    ‘Losing players to overseas clubs is sad,’ admits Erasmus. ‘But we’ve worked it out and it just doesn’t make sense to compete with those overseas salaries. We’d rather pay 70 or 80 franchise players and have control of their conditioning, nutrition, game minutes and high-performance programme. So the pros [of this new approach] outweigh the cons of potentially losing six or seven guys to overseas contracts every year. The franchises will contract the players and we will have players of national interest [PONIs] who we will contribute to.’

    A worryingly large number of Boks are currently playing for European and Japanese clubs. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, though, as an even larger group of uncapped players has left South Africa in recent years to pursue more lucrative opportunities overseas.

    There will be another wave of departures at the end of 2019, when the four-year cycle between World Cups comes to an end. However, the Boks will still have access to these overseas-based players in the designated Test windows, because World Rugby’s Regulation 9 enforces the release of international players for the June Tests, the Rugby Championship and the November Tests.

    ‘If there’s someone in South Africa who is better, you will always pick that guy because you have access to him,’ says Erasmus. ‘You can fly to Joburg or wherever and see him train or chat to his coach. A guy who is overseas, on the other hand, will only be accessible through Regulation 9. We must look at what we have here, and consider the talent we have coming through.

    ‘We can’t pay one player R10 million to stay in South Africa, and then he sustains one knee injury and we’re in trouble. We may be able to secure 10 youngsters for that amount of money, and nurture them with the ultimate aim of getting the national side back to No 1 or 2 in the world.’

    ‘As an industry, we realised that we had too many players,’ says MyPlayers CEO Eugene Henning when asked how the new model came about. ‘That’s an issue on two fronts. The first is you’re spending too much money. The second is you’re not doing nearly enough for player development.

    ‘We started having discussions with the South African Rugby Employers’ Organisation [SAREO] and SA Rugby about a different contracting model. We tried to work towards a model that would suit the South African market. We went around the country and tested it with the players. So, this is something that has come from the players as much as it has come from management.’

    Henning believes this will have an impact at all levels. Ultimately, they hope it will give players a reason to stay in the country.

    ‘More PONIs will be involved in the national plan. There will be a lot more job security. There’s now a clear career path for the players, which wasn’t necessarily the case in the past. The plan makes provision for succession planning, which we didn’t have in the past either. Financially, on average, the guys will be better off. We understand that it’s not the perfect model or the be-all and end-all. It’s a solid first step, though, and there will be adjustments.’

    In the past, individual franchises were free to stockpile players in certain positions. This may bolster the depth of a side, but does little to develop a second- or third-choice player who may need game time.

    Erasmus has stressed the need for succession planning at every level. However, he has also acknowledged the importance of spreading the talent across the respective franchises to ensure that top players receive enough game time and arrive for Test duty with the required skill set and match fitness.

    ‘It will be a while before this plan kicks in,’ admits Erasmus. ‘We’ve got an agreement with all the franchise CEOs. Every franchise has a person in charge of succession planning. We are going to share it three times a year nationally, in terms of who they see coming through in the next three years. I will also share my plan in terms of rankings and who we see coming through to the Boks.

    ‘In terms of PONIs, we have to look at the distribution of talent. It wouldn’t make sense, for example, if there were three tight head props of national interest playing in one province. Why should we at SA Rugby contribute to that third tight head if he’s not going to get game time?

    ‘That’s where we have to work together in terms of mapping a player’s future. We are not going to tell that player that he has to move. He will struggle, however, if he just sits there at a franchise where he is the third choice and not playing or developing.

    ‘I think we will only reap the benefits of this system in the middle of next year. Most of the franchises have already shared their succession plans with me, though, and we’re positive about the future.’


    Key points

    • Joint development of players of national interest (PONIs) by unions and Springbok management.
    • Caps on squad size and player budgets per union.
    • Identified categories for payment: Professional (full-time players eligible to play in Vodacom Super Rugby, Guinness Pro14 and Currie Cup Premier Division competitions); semi-professional (who may only be contracted to play in the Currie Cup First Division and in the SuperSport Rugby Challenge); and development players (21 or younger who have not been offered a professional contract).
    • A ‘commitment clause’ through which young players will be rewarded for longer-term commitment to South Africa.

    By the numbers

    60 The budget, in millions, allocated to each individual franchise.

    45 Player cap for Super Rugby, Pro14 and Currie Cup Premier Division teams. If teams need more players – in the event of injuries – they can use any of their own development players as well as players from any club, subject to the rules of SA Rugby.

    40 Player cap for emerging franchises not playing Super Rugby or Pro14 (Griquas and Pumas). R15 million will be allocated to these teams.

    23 Non-franchises (other unions) can contract up to 23 pro players and 17 semi-pro players. They have been allocated R6 million each.


    Article written by