What does it mean to be a professional sports person or organisation? The answer might seem obvious – you get paid for playing and running a commercially stable sport because it is your job.
But professionalism means so much more and, in South Africa, rugby professionalism is lacking. The time has come to cull players and unions.
New Zealand rugby has set the bar high when it comes to defining professionalism and England, with Eddie Jones at the helm of the national team, and an impressive club structure in place, are not far behind.
If the Springboks, and the rest of South African rugby wants to catch up to New Zealand in particular, some hard choices are going to have to be made by administrators and players otherwise the already vast gap will become unbridgeable.
Broadly, this is what happens in New Zealand.
They don’t have a professional under-19 and national under-21 championship and talented schoolboys are not drafted on huge salaries into the provincial system.
Players come through their regional clubs, which are amateur and into the provincial system, which is ‘professional’ in the sense that small salaries are paid. It’s enough money for a young player to survive, but not enough to become complacent on.
Out of the National Provincial Championship (NPC), which has had various names over the years, emerge 150 Super Rugby players, who are contracted by franchises that are funded by the NZRFU. Hundreds of talented players are scrapping every weekend to earn one of those contracts.
Talent abounds in New Zealand, just as it does in South Africa, but the crucial difference is that talent alone is not enough. Kiwi players have to work harder to maximise their skills so that they can earn one of a relatively few well-paying jobs in rugby.
Contrast that to here. A talented schoolboy is courted by several provincial unions and negotiates a R750,000 a year junior contract before he has been tackled by a ‘hardebaard.’
That player arrives at the gates of his new union in a sponsored 4×4 thinking he has already made it. The equivalent schoolboy in New Zealand is sharing digs with three other players, surviving off a stipend. If he wants to make it, he has to be hungrier than the rest – he has to work harder.
Kiwi players are expected to spend hours after training, working on skills individually or in groups. It’s not demanded, but at every New Zealand franchise, when formal coaching is done, their players are still at work. The average workday for a professional player in New Zealand is 7am to 7pm. South African players generally knock off by 4pm. And we ask why their players are fitter and more skilful than ours?
South African players are called professional but most are not.
When Jake White was at the Sharks he told the players to report at 7am. They had a whole day of work, usually leaving King’s Park around 6pm. And there was nearly a revolt.
White fell out with senior players for being too dictatorial when in fact he was just trying to be professional. Eventually the coach left because he didn’t have the backing of his board, who – instead of weeding out players not interested in being pro – jettisoned the coach who was the definition of professional.
John Mitchell expected the same high work ethic from his players at the Lions but he was also ousted because he was too tough. He used foul language and belittled players. His methods may have been abrasive but it came from a desire to make players understand what it takes to be a true ‘professional’.
In South Africa, there are over 700 ‘professional’ players even though nearly every union is technically insolvent. That number needs to reduce drastically.
SA Rugby’s 2015 annual report reveals that it paid over R165m to the 14 unions, which basically keeps them afloat because they have to pay salaries to ‘professional’ players.
But what if there were only six professional unions in South Africa – the Super Rugby franchises – and instead of cutting R165m into 14 slices, it were split six ways?
Fewer professional contracts would mean more competition for places. Fewer professional players would also translate to more money being channelled to fewer resources.
So everyone could be paid more and the threat of poaching SA’s best players from overseas clubs would be reduced, although never fully eradicated. There would be more money for expert skills coaches and better facilities.
But that would require eight unions accepting that they are amateur and exist only on that level.
Hundreds of players would have to fight at the club and amateur inter-provincial levels to earn a contract that might require them working a full day.
If it doesn’t happen, professional rugby in this country is doomed to mediocrity and eventual extinction as support from fans, sponsors and broadcasters collapses.