The outflow of players chasing foreign currency makes it seem unlikely that Tendai ‘Beast’ Mtawarira’s record for the most Super Rugby caps will ever be matched, but there are things local administrators can do and there are potential changes underway – both here and overseas – that could change that negative outlook.
When the popular Sharks and Springbok loosehead ran out to face the Bulls in Durban on Saturday he equalled Adriaan Strauss’ record of 155 caps. The record will become Mtawarira’s own if he gets onto the field against the Lions in Johannesburg on Friday.
These days, the turnover of players and the length of stay at a particular union or franchise is such that the long-serving stalwart, like Mtawarira has been for the Sharks, is becoming a rarity.
But then maybe there is a lesson in Beast’s longevity in the local game, in the sense that he has been looked after in a way that perhaps more players could be once the professional playing pool has been diminished in the top provinces, as per the recent SA Rugby decree.
Many a player has spoken about long-term security when announcing a move to chase the Yen, Euro or Sterling overseas. One of the reasons Mtawarira has never been on the market for a move overseas has been because he has been well looked after by the security company run by former Sharks captain Wahl Bartmann. Mtawarira serves as an ambassador for the company.
Such an arrangement, with a long term role in the company once the players’ playing career is over, would complete a package for a prospective rugby emigrant to the northern hemisphere that would amount to far more than just the money offered and may make it attractive for them to stay.
A third-party agreement such as that was what kept several Australian players in that country a few years ago. At a time when there’s a growing concern about what happens to players who devote their entire lives to rugby from the moment they leave school – in fact even before that if you think about it – a sponsorship tied in with security at the end of a player’s rugby career is an innovation overdue.
Keeping players loyal to the local game will have massive benefits.
The Lions have provided evidence of the benefit of keeping a team together over a long period of time and building for success. Their feat of topping the South African conference in Super Rugby for three years in a row was built around the way the key players and combinations were able to stay together and grow during the couple of seasons when the Lions were considered low budget and their players weren’t high profile enough to be sought after by overseas clubs.
As it stands right now, with union’s short of cash and coffers running dry, you find yourself wondering if the coaches going forward will even be able to put in place a long-term plan like the Lions did. Four years has become a long time, and unless the union’s start offering long-term contracts, which most currently can’t afford to, succession planning will become even more of a challenge.
But changes on the way at home could make a difference, in the form of the more truncated player groups that are envisaged per the new contracting model which places limits on spend. Hopefully smaller groups, which means less mouths to feed, will mean more individualised attention and investment.
It is also starting to become probable that changes may happen overseas, where the penny is apparently dropping that too many foreigners in their leagues are having a negative impact on the national teams. Changes to the tax laws and greater awareness of them, possible amendments to World Rugby regulations and adjustments to the eligibility of outsiders to play in foreign leagues could all drive a dramatic change in the landscape, particularly if it is allied to the administrators back home making the new envisaged dispensation work.
If the cutting of the professional squads does bring the desired result of making more available to the fewer it can only be a positive. Although the retention of the next tier as an under-21 competition (rather than U20) is just dumb, as three years is too long for players to wait for provincial recognition after leaving school, the axing of the national under-19 competition is a big step forward.
I’ve been talking to many ex-Boks recently in the process of researching a book and one thing has been made clear – most players would much rather play in South Africa if they could. If there is more money available, and the working environment is good, there will be more chance of local rugby retaining it’s strength and the interest from the public that goes with it.