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Special report: Plugging the player drain

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    Posted: 05-Aug-2019 at 9:31am
https://www.sarugbymag.co.za/special-report-plugging-the-player-drain/

The exodus of players overseas has forced SA Rugby to revise its contracting model and player-management approach. JON CARDINELLI reports.

SA Rugby and the franchises cannot match the salaries offered by wealthy European and Japanese clubs and they cannot stop high-profile Springboks from 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 and strengthening the local player-base.

As Rassie Erasmus confirmed at the announcement of the new contracting model, SA Rugby and the franchises have to work together to keep the next tier of players in South African and to develop the stars of tomorrow. The fact that everybody is onboard with the new plan marks an important first step, as is the agreement to cap squad sizes and player budgets.

In essence, SA Rugby will no longer directly contract Springboks. The new model, says SA Rugby, 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.

‘The old system has been in place for a while and it’s been a while since we’ve been successful,’ the SA director of rugby said, referring to the Boks’ failure to win the Rugby Championship – or the Tri-Nations as it was formerly known – since 2009. No South African franchise has won the Super Rugby tournament since 2010.

‘We’ve done a lot of homework to come up with what we believe will be a more successful model. 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,’ said Erasmus. ‘But we worked it out and it 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 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] that we will contribute to.’

As the accompanying list of names indicates [at the bottom of this article], a worryingly large number of Boks are 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 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. 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.

‘I went overseas last year to visit all the Boks I felt could play for us at the World Cup,’ says Erasmus. ‘You want to know who’s still got that desire. It’s not just about saying it, you can see it in their conditioning and how they play. Some guys go overseas and relax. That’s the difference.

‘If there’s someone in South Africa who is better you will always pick that guy because you have access to him. You can fly to Jo’burg or wherever and see him train or chat to his coach. A guy who is overseas, however, 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 gets one knee injury and we are in trouble. Maybe we can get 10 youngsters for that amount and nurture them with the ultimate aim of getting the national side back to No 1 or 2 in the world.’

How salaries are allocated to those replacing Handre Pollard, Eben Etzebeth and others leaving at the end of the season will change significantly.

‘The positive thing is that those overseas-based players will still be available,’ says Erasmus. ‘Another positive is that the youngsters will come through and get a chance. What we saw in the past was a guy, for example, like Eben Etzebeth leaving and the next guy in – say a more junior lock like JD Schickerling or Salmaan Moerat – stepping into the Stormers starting lineup and getting Eben’s salary. This was done simply because he was the next guy in line. The junior guy’s salary got inflated and, on a bigger scale, we inflated our own market. That will have to change.’

WHY THE MODEL WILL BENEFIT PLAYERS

‘As an industry, we realised that we had too many players,’ says MyPlayers CEO Eugene Henning when he’s 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 enough for player development.

‘So 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’s come from management.’

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

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

Some, of course, will have a tough call to make if they don’t receive a pro contract after the age of 21.

‘There are only 45 spots in the senior teams,’ says Henning. ‘In the past we kept players in the system until the late age of 30 or 32 just because we didn’t have limits on the number of contracted players. Now we are telling a player that, if he doesn’t get a contract at the age of 21, this is not the stage to go into professional rugby. Perhaps the club system will be a better route for those players. The whole system is geared towards looking after the players who are contracted a bit better in terms of finances and development.’

MANAGING NATIONAL ASSETS

The best-performing nations are those that boast a central contracting system, or at least a model that works towards managing the best players with the national team in mind. New Zealand and Ireland are examples and the All Blacks are at No 1 in the World Rugby rankings, while Ireland are No 3.

Erasmus, however, says they had to consider what was best for the South African market.

‘We had a lot of workshops with the respective organisations and players to ensure that we came up with the best model for us. Every PONI is going to have a contract with his franchise and we [at the Boks] will have our own parameters in place.’

The director of rugby confirmed the national coach will work closely with the franchise mentors to ensure top players are managed correctly during the Super Rugby season. Erasmus cites the example of Pollard’s management in the recent tournament.

He was meant to be rested in the latter stages of the Bulls’ tour to Australasia. The Bok flyhalf had already returned to South Africa to recover from a minor calf injury when he got an SOS from the Bulls before their final tour clash, against the Blues in Auckland. Erasmus reveals the decision to send Pollard back to New Zealand was part of the national plan.

‘Handre needed some game time,’ he says. ‘If the Bulls didn’t qualify for the playoffs then Handre would have gone into the Rugby Championship having not played for five or six weeks. We were working with the Bulls in planning that. That’s a good example of what we will do with PONIs in future.’

SPREADING THE TALENT

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 highlighted the importance of spreading the talent across the respective franchises to ensure 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,’ he admits. ‘We’ve got an agreement with all the franchise CEOs. Every franchise has a person in charge of succession planning. We’re 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 are three tightheads of national interest playing at one province. Why should we at SA Rugby contribute to that third tighthead 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 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.’

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.

KEY POINTS

*Joint development of players of national interest (PONI) 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.

SPRINGBOK PLAYER DRAIN

OUTSIDE BACKS: Leaving in 2019: Ruan Combrinck (Stade Francais), Travis Ismaiel (Harlequins). Already overseas: Gio Aplon (Toyota Verblitz), Zane Kirchner (Dragons/Bristol), Cheslin Kolbe (Toulouse), Willie le Roux (Wasps/Toyota Verblitz), Raymond Rhule (Grenoble). Returning: JP Pietersen (Toulon)

MIDFIELDERS: Leaving in 2019: Jesse Kriel (Canon Eagles), Lionel Mapoe (Stade Francais). Already overseas: Juan de Jongh (Wasps), Rohan Janse van Rensburg (Sale Sharks), Wynand Olivier (Worcester Warriors), Jan Serfontein (Montpellier), Jaco Taute (Munster/Leicester), Francois Venter (Worcester Warriors). Returning: Frans Steyn (Montpellier).

FLYHALVES: Leaving in 2019: Rob du Preez (Sale Sharks), Handre Pollard (Montpellier). Returning: Morne Steyn (Stade Francais).

SCRUMHALVES: Already overseas: Faf de Klerk (Sale Sharks), Francois Hougaard (Worcester Warriors), Ricky Januarie (Agen), Ruan Pienaar (Montpellier), Cobus Reinach (Northampton Saints). Returning: Piet van Zyl (Stade Francais – retired).

LOOSE FORWARDS: Dan du Preez (Sale Sharks)*, Jean-Luc du Preez (Sale Sharks)*. Already overseas: Willem Alberts (Stade Francais), Arno Botha (Munster), Heinrich Brussow (Northampton Saints), Nizaam Carr (Wasps), Uzair Cassiem (Scarlets), Marcell Coetzee (Ulster), Ashley Johnson (Wasps), Jaco Kriel (Gloucester), Francois Louw (Bath), Jacques Potgieter (Toulon), Deon Stegmann (Honda Heat), Pedrie Wannenburg (Austin Elite). Returning: Schalk Burger (Saracens).

LOCKS: Leaving in 2019: Lood de Jager (Sale Sharks), Eben Etzebeth (Toulon), Jason Jenkins (Canon Eagles), Stephan Lewies (Harlequins), RG Snyman (Honda Heat). Already overseas: Juandre Kruger (Toulon), Franco Mostert (Gloucester), Flip van der Merwe (Clermont).

HOOKERS: Leaving in 2019: Schalk Brits (retirement), Akker van der Merwe (Sale Sharks). Already overseas: Bismarck du Plessis (Montpellier).

PROPS: Leaving in 2019: Coenie Oosthuizen (Sale Sharks). Already overseas: Lourens Adriaanse (Pau), Pat Cilliers (London Irish), Ruan Dreyer (Gloucester), Jannie du Plessis (Montpellier), Vincent Koch (Saracens), Werner Kruger (Ospreys), Heinke van der Merwe (Stade Francais), Marcel van der Merwe (Toulon).

*Players on short-term loan.
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