Cut eight SA teams, 300 players

Brenden Nel

It was shortly before the 2015 Rugby World Cup final that then Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer conducted an off-the-record briefing with some of the journalists present.

The Boks had just taken third place and Meyer summed up a campaign overshadowed by the shock defeat to Japan by expressing his concern for the future.

He warned those in attendance that things would get worse in SA Rugby, primarily because of the outflow of players and the lack of structures to deal with transforming the game. Coupled to the inability to work towards a common goal, Meyer ominously warned that “many more shocks are probably coming.”

Many in the room ignored the warning but a few years later those of us that were there must admit Meyer was right. Springbok rugby lurched from one defeat to the next under Allister Coetzee, before Rassie Erasmus kicked off his term with a loss against Wales.

Much has been written about what is wrong with our rugby; it’s time to ask what can we do to get the Boks back to the top of the world?

The short answer isn’t easy, and won’t be popular. SA Rugby should not delay in taking a number of steps to not only stop the player drain but also give local franchises the best chance of competing worldwide.

We have too many professional players. A system like ours, with a weak rand, can only support 250-300 players and not the 600-plus that we currently have. The result is too many players earning a living out of rugby and diluting the system.

Cutting the number of professional provincial teams to a maximum of six would be a step in the right direction, if SA Rugby follow through on it.

I hate using other teams as examples, but Ireland’s stellar year – they won the Six Nations, won the Pro14 and European Cup, and watched their Sevens team reach the semis of the London7s in their first big tournament – comes from nothing more than good planning.

Ireland have way fewer resources than the Springboks. They have much less talent, but they have a common goal. A recent conversation with an Irish club coach put it in perspective. They needed a new fitness guy, so what did they do? They headhunted a strength and conditioning expert from the NFL, because he was the best candidate.

Think about that for a minute – the best they could find. Irish rugby has a mantra right now that every facet of their play needs to be at its best and the people in every franchise, in every club, need to be the best the sport can get.

Contrast that to the South African scene. How many people employed by rugby are in the top 2 percent in their field? How many got their jobs through family or club connections and simply wafted into a permanent role? How many are given jobs to do favours for others

And Irish coaches do more with less. They coach players and work on their skills. At the moment too many players choose the “easy” option of a well-paying contract abroad rather than fighting for their places.  And that’s the situation we find ourselves in – this weekend, Monpellier fielded 293 Test caps and the Boks 124.

So cut the number of players, cut the provinces and put excellence at the forefront of a franchise system. Move the money to where it can be used properly and put systems in place to keep players in South Africa.

Instead of funding 14 provinces with millions to keep them alive, six teams would mean that proper academies can be put in place, that top coaches are funnelled to these teams and that a culture of excellence is created. Just like Ireland, well-run professional teams require funding, and the investment will pay off if it is implemented correctly.

Players may not earn as much here, but the competition for places will be more intense and if the coaching structures are right, the standard will increase and Springbok rugby will be the beneficiary.

Suddenly we will have Super Rugby squads where players will be older than 25, where rugby IQ is passed down and mentorship can happen. Sure, we will still lose players, but at least the franchises can compete on an equal footing.

After the Boks went down in Washington D.C., I received a few messages from contacts in rugby who were highly critical of Rassie. One called him the “messiah” that had fallen at the first hurdle and another told me “Allister Coetzee would have been laughing all the way through the game.”

These weren’t emotional fans who lacked insight, these were rugby folk – people who earn their living through the game. I was disgusted because, regardless of what you think about Rassie and his coaching, it is time we stopped pointing out the symptoms and started fixing the problems.

SA Rugby is doing their best with limited resources but they are hamstrung by their own structures. Too often personal survival tops what is good for the game when it comes to decision-making.

Provincial presidents protect their own turf, and while many can see the changes are needed, the personal cost is too high for them, and the professional arm of SA Rugby can only do so much without the go-ahead of its stakeholders.

The buy-in from around the country, from every level, needs to be there for the Boks to succeed. The desire to be the best in every facet of the game needs to be there. And some hard decisions about the future of the game need to be taken.

Until they are, and until the vision is united and the focus direct, we can expect more Bok shocks and younger teams than ever before, no matter who the coach is.

- Brenden Nel

Let's chat

  • Wesley

    I feel you Brendan, but who’s gonna take the paycut, who’s gonna pull out or quit? Who’s gonna give up their executive suite lounger at a franchise match and take up position on a plastic patio chair at a academy game? This is politics you are asking to change, not rugby, and in my opinion, will NEVER happen.

    • Sharky

      Easy – make funding performance-based. If you come X or above in Super Rugby you get Y funds. If not you get y/10,000. Put simply, starve the smaller franchises of funds if they refuse to comply. Hell, dissolve SARU and SA Rugby and start again if you must.

    • Darren

      Somehow SA Rugby has to force the smaller provinces to dissolve, will be a political minefield but it’s the only way to save our rugby.

  • Christo

    Good article but I beg to differ. We will never have good coaches for the 6 top provincial teams. Our coaches is the problem with our rugby. How useless can one be when you have the best and biggest pool of talent in the world, but rarely beat NZ franchises? The proof is our players that play in Europe. ALL of them are much better players now, after leaving SA, playing under non SA coaches, with the exception of a few.
    I say: Let our players go and play in Europe. They are better coached, their skill level increase dramatically, they learn rugby savvy and they think like professionals. Then pick them for the Boks. We must learn from soccer and learn fast. We still have naive amateurish administrators with no clue what true professionalism is. Study the oldest professional major team sport and learn from it. American baseball.

    • Herman Schroder?

      Christo, Excellent post my friend and spot on. Poor coaching is our nemesis in this country and has been since 2009 when the Boks briefly reached the summit of world rugby. If truth be told the Bulls SR win in 2010 was the last ‘international’ trophy won by the Boks in EIGHT years and we are now ranked 7th in the world. What a shambles and SARU blissfully fiddle while the Springbok burns. Cheers.

  • Sharky

    “Contrast that to the South African scene. How many people employed by rugby are in the top 2 percent in their field? How many got their jobs through family or club connections and simply wafted into a permanent role? How many are given jobs to do favours for others.”

    What is wrong with this paragraph? You left out the stonking big elephant in the room. How many got their jobs through affirmative action or transformation? And how many talented people have been pushed aside to make way for these deployees?

    But I agree, until we adopt a meritocratic outlook we will never be the best we can be. How can we be the best if we don’t employ our best?

    • Herman Schroder?

      Spot on Sharkey, it’s an abomination. Cheers.

  • Dean

    SARU needs to make some big calls for the future of the game in SA, otherwise we will forever be relegated to a second-tier nation. Right now, we are just that, except many still refuse to believe it. In terms of finances, technology, facilities and structure we are far behind NZ, England and Ireland. I completely agree with Brendan’s sentiments. This idea was echoed by one of the other writers on this website when the Cheetahs and Kings were relegated from Super Rugby. Imagine Vermeulen, Koch, Marcell Coetzee, Brussow, Frans Steyn, Gio Aplon, Kolbe, Faf, Willie, JP and most of the other top players in Europe returning to SA. Our rugby would be strong and extremely competitive again. We’ve lost so many coaches too. SARU are too quick to write off former coaches ie. Jake White, Heyneke Meyer, Alan Solomons etc.

    Remember this interview? It puts it all into perspective.

    • Herman Schroder?

      Dean I take your point but I don’t believe those players even as a collective will solve our problems. Too many of them are quite frankly ‘long in the tooth’ now and I still believe that despite their experiences overseas most of them are still mired in the old go to option of SA rugby ie dom krag which even Rassie last Saturday seemed hell bent on emulating.

      The other problem is if the best players are continually leaving local rugby will suffer. We need not look further than the NZ template, it’s either the All Blacks or the highway, take it or leave it.

      The two top teams in the world, Ireland and NZ, base their games on outscoring their opposition with tries so until we have a coach that can effectively base Bok rugby on it we will continue to lag the world. Even Argentina have finally come to terms with it. If they can turn their game around so fast, what is our excuse ? Rassie has the following three tests to convince me he is on that path. Let’s see what happens. Cheers.

      • Dean

        Either way we have to keep our best players in SA now and in the future. Its no good if players like Ruan Ackermann, Jaco Kriel, Franco Mostert etc. are leaving. It will dilute our Super Rugby teams even further.

        • Herman Schroder?

          Agreed old chap. Cheers.

  • Henry

    The most stupidest thing I have heard….cut out some of the smaller unions!!! Take for example the North West Province (home of the Leopards)…if you cut them out what happens to rugby development and playing the game in the whole of the province? Do you really think an academy will solve the problem? How many can the academies accommodate? Where will they be based? Who gets in and who gets shown away? A couple of years back there was a survey done with regards to where players playing at the top level (Currie Cup Premier Division and Super Rugby) come from and where did they play before they moved up. The results showed that 35 players that started their careers at the Leopards were playing at the top level. Where would they be if the Leopards were cut from the system? Recently players to make their mark are Akker van der Merwe, Sylvian Mahuza, Dylan Smit ext. In the North West Province they have to clubs like the NWU Pukke and Gold Cup Champs, Impala and even their big schools like Lichtenburg, Potch Gimmies, Volkies and KHS feature in the play-offs of the Virseker Beker and Puk and Tuks series. Where must these players go after school? The Leopards have become the breeding ground for top players and are being targeted by the bigger unions to fill the squads. Because of a lack of support from SA Rugby financially they can’t keep these players and have to let them go and start again. I wonder if Brendan has the guts to post the amount of financial support the top unions get compared to the smaller unions. A top player at the bigger unions gets paid the same amount as the whole player budget of the smaller unions! That’s right, one player at the Bulls for example gets paid the same as a whole squad at a smaller union! What about the staff at these smaller unions that do all the development of players throughout the province and especially in the rural areas as well as the training and education of new coaches ext? I don’t think Brendan understands the structures and processes that are in place. He only sees the Springbok results and not the bigger picture. The only way to become the strongest rugby playing country in the world is to not select overseas based players. If you want to play overseas and earn your money there then your loyalty surely does not lie with SA Rugby but rather in the power of the euro or pound. If the All Blacks struggle with a good no 10 they do not run overseas to plead with Dan Carter to please come and help. Once you leave then you are out of contention. We are making it easy for players to apply their trade in Europe and still be up for Bok selection. If you decide that you want to play for the Bokke then show your loyalty, passion and desire by playing in SA. This will also help by inspiring and bettering younger players coming through the ranks playing with these big name players. Cutting out some of the smaller unions is not the answer.

  • Herman Schroder?

    Brenden, Meyer may have been right in some ways but he was not entirely blameless in the greater scheme of things. His preference for pale golden oldies when he came under pressure, especially at the WC, was the catalyst that brought the ‘qouta’ system into the limelight when the ANC and SARU insisted on it’s implementation.

    You also mention his ‘bronze’ medal as, I assume a trophy to his success. You’re not forgetting we played in the easiest pool at the WC and still nearly blew it. Then but for a once in a lifetime ‘chicken wing’ pass by Vermeulen in the Wales game, which led to a Fourie Du Preez match saving try, we would have exited at the QF stage. His last two years were also not much better than Alistair’s two year stint if truth be told.

    But I’m sure that your articles main focus was Meyer’s dire warnings and the fact that it has come to pass and thanks for that. It’s time that our journalists start addressing the real issues in our rugby and not sugar coat the harsh realities of the current set up. SARU must fall ?? Cheers.

  • Barry Smith

    I am not sure you proposal will fix things! New Zealand are now also facing exodus of players and they have none of the South African issues to worry about!
    The other issue to consider is that the smaller Unions are often spawning grounds for new talent. Take for example the current foreign based Springboks that have been called up: FW de Klerk – Punas; Duane Vermeulen – Pumas; Willie Le roux Boland. With your proposal, these guys would have been lost to the system and may well be used car salesmen instead!

  • Ragga

    In my opinion the real problem with sa rugby is saru and the unions.lets take for example pretoria schools there is 30 high schools with 1xv teams where only 4 top schools represent the bulls high school teams mostly.from the bulls high school teams they get contracted to unions and question is where does the rest of the schools matric players go when they are finish with school,some boys try club rugby tukkies dont play you if you are not a student or have a bursary the other open club also dont play you becuase of an acedemy and if you dont pay to be in the acedemy you dont play.the other desent open club left only cater for the seniors now they stop playing rugby becuase they must work and there is noway back into the sytem so hundreds of players is lost in the sytem and thats only in pretoria what about the other unions same problem.schoolboyrugby is very strong but things go wrong after school 1000s of boys stop playing rugby in south africa because there is no system after school where they can get a shot into rugby.the same system goes for coaching its only who you know and not what you can do.the south african system has caught up with us and know the blame goes from one thing to is only for small percentage in south africa.

  • Andrew Mortimer

    Henry and Ragga make some valid points. South Africa has better breading grounds for Rugby than almost all the other rugby playing nations around the world. Many of these breading grounds are in the “smaller, less well funded” unions. However the fact remains that our economy is not strong enough to support more than 6 fully professional rugby teams.

    The six professional franchises need to move away from the old provincial unions (this is already happening with the rules of ownership changing) These 6 franchises should have to field 3 teams, a super/pro14 team, an u20 team and a woman’s team.
    6 truly professional teams should be enough (supplemented by players from overseas) to pick a competitive Bok squad.

    So how then we need to create a system to get players from the breeding grounds to the 6 franchises.
    Number 1
    School Structures – we have plenty of excellent schools with long histories of playing rugby (I am not just talking about the big schools seen in the FNB clashes) Players need to be funneled into amateur provincial teams. The Craven week is a good and successful model.
    Number 2
    Club Structures (semi professional / part time jobs)- not all players develop into top quality players by 18. We need to revamp and develop our club structures into a strong breading ground from players over the age of 20. Competitions like the Varsity Cup and the Gold Cup need to be expanded. Here we need businesses to partner with clubs so that promising young players can work part-time jobs and train 3-4 times a week. Playing for the ‘jersey and pride’ must be the primary motivation at this level.
    Number 3
    Provincial unions need to return to fielding semi-pro/amateur teams. Competitions such as the Currie Cup may have to be remodeled so that costs are limited. TV money from this competition needs to be spent on logistics and players support to ensure the players are ready to be signed by professional teams.

    I would also argue that if the club structures were well organised and say 20 strong semi-pro clubs were developed across the country then the 6 franchises would have the pick of the top youth talent and from a pool of dedicated young talent.

  • minging

    Nothing will change whilst pencil-tests over merit is in existence. Guys like Vincent Koche take one look at an average loose-head starting at tight-head after a dismal season and simply renew their over-seas contracts instead, turning their backs on the Boks.

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