The move to cut the pool of South Africa’s professional players in half is a big crossroads for our rugby. Some people are reading it as a positive, but if the 450 players we want to keep are the ones that leave, then we’ll be in an even deeper hole than we are now.
If you’re building a pyramid, the wider the base, the higher the peak. A big school of 1000 boys produces more quality players than a school of 450 boys. So, if you want your national rugby team to be strong, then the more players you have, the better. If we expose fewer players to professional rugby, how can we expect to compete against the best?
Firing half of our players does have some merit because of financial considerations, but only if you’re going to keep the best players.
If it’s going to mean better coaching, control and management of individuals, and fewer players sharing a bigger portion of the money, then it will have been worthwhile. But if it’s not those things, then having fewer players will be detrimental because we’ll be where we are now with less talent to choose from.
It’s such a fine line and the really important question is, who is going to decide which 450 players stay? It’s not as simple as just cutting guys.
What happens if our five best players go? And why wouldn’t they – the Bok coach just picked five players who went overseas and played better rugby, and not one of them says they’re not enjoying it over there?
The law of averages tells me that the 100s of players who choose to leave are going to be better off than those who stay.
I’m not surprised that Cheslin Kolbe has been a hit in Europe and has now been called up. He left for France because he wasn’t in the Bok plans, and now he’s about to make his Test debut. That tells every other guy in South Africa that if you want to be a Bok it’s not a bad idea to go play somewhere else.
There’s enough evidence to prove that pathway works. CJ Stander left the Bulls and he’s now a British Lion. John Allan’s nephew, Tommaso Allan has played 40 Tests for Italy. Bishops old boy Stuart Abbott is an MBE who won a gold medal at the 2003 Rugby World Cup for England.
And the next exodus of SA players will be going to coaches that want to pick them, rugby programs that make them better players and they will perform well, as South Africans have a reputation for doing all over the world. Unless you can offer those benefits in SA, we’re going to be worse off with fewer players.
I was an assistant to Harry Viljoen when he was the Bok coach between 2000 and 2002 and I learnt a lot from a coach who was way ahead of his time in terms of professionalism and innovation.
In his first Test, the Boks played Argentina at the River Plate Stadium. He picked Percy Montgomery at 10 and told him he wasn’t allowed to kick the ball. The Boks played for 73 minutes before kicking the ball for the first time, and we won 37-33.
At that time, he was the national coach and it didn’t matter whether anyone disagreed with his vision for the Boks.
Two years later, in one of his last Tests in charge, he picked Louis Koen and Braam van Straaten at 10 and 12 and they were told to kick the hell out of the ball. That shows how things can change – we went from not kicking to starting two guys next to each other who specialised in kicking the ball miles.
And that’s why having a full-time director of rugby is so important. The person in that job should have a clear picture of where he wants South African rugby to go and what kind of players are needed to get us there.
If we’d cut our players in 2000, Harry would have said that the 450 players who stay must be able to catch and pass, and run from everywhere. Two years later he would have wanted to sign players who could kick with both feet.
The director of rugby role is a much more important job than people think, perhaps now more than ever. He should be actively involved in the game on the ground, but also have a committee of people that are paid to challenge the way we think about the game and have a vision for where the game is going.
If your U20s scrape home against Georgia, your Sevens side is inconsistent and your senior side has a 50-percent win record, then it’s quite obvious that none of those things are in place at the moment. And that’s a problem because the only way to turn the ship around is for someone to be accountable for a plan that gets us back to the top of World Rugby.
You need to know where you want to end up and then work backwards from there, but I’m not sure that anyone in SA knows what the end goal looks like.
We have to be genuine about what we want from our rugby. If we really want to be the best again, then every difficult decision can be answered with one simple question: will this help us become world champions?