A South African team won’t win Super Rugby again until we create a system where the focus is on quality and not quantity.
The schizophrenic nature of SA performances across the board is the result of Super Rugby teams being decimated by players signing for overseas clubs, poor recruitment systems and a lack of willingness to hunker down and focus on retaining a core group of players for a long period of time.
That’s been the secret to the success of the Lions over the past few years. Coach Johan Ackermann offered a lifeline to a number of players thrown away from other unions, built a unit based on trust and mutual respect, and allowed the players to flourish.
Now that this bond has been broken, we’ve seen players like Ruan Dreyer, Franco Mostert, Rohan Janse van Rensburg, Jaco Kriel and others head north, with more stalwarts of that side likely to follow.
And while it has worked for the Lions, we mustn’t forget it was by necessity rather than design that this came about. Relegated from Super Rugby, the Lions offloaded a number of players in 2012, returned to basics and built their franchise up again from scratch.
Unfortunately, they haven’t stuck to that model, and neither have the rest of the SA teams.
Craven Week is in Paarl this year and that means cash-flush provincial scouts have flocked to the Western Cape from across the country to sign the brightest young talents in a coup for their home franchise.
But the bottom line is that the contracting formula made popular by the Bulls more than a decade ago simply doesn’t work anymore. Back then, Ian Schwartz, a wonderfully astute High Performance Manager, recruited players left, right and centre from right under the noses of rival unions and, together with Heyneke Meyer, built the teams that would go on to win three Super Rugby titles.
The other provinces have since caught on, and now they all do it. It’s a bidding war for juniors where contracts fetch close to one million rand for an Under-18 star, even though there’s no guarantee the player will actually make it all the way through to Super Rugby.
The Bulls High Performance department still signs 120 juniors to the union and, with that, they have claimed a sum total of four titles – three under-21 and one under-19 trophy in the past seven years. There have been no senior trophies and while they perennially have the largest group of players in the SA under-20 squad, what does that mean in the larger scheme of things?
Ironically, the Lions have now surpassed the Bulls’ efforts in applying this contracting model and they too will find out soon enough that dominating junior rugby and hoping it translates into the senior ranks simply doesn’t work.
This past week, Bulls coach John Mitchell hit the nail on the head when he said it was a joke to expect SA sides to win Super Rugby in the current situation.
“Every South African team suffers, we don’t have squads that are entirely Super Rugby quality, and until we create that, we won’t give ourselves a chance to win this tournament,” Mitchell explained.
“I think we are guessing and thumb-sucking to think we can win a tournament of this magnitude… to just rely on a handful of quality players and Super Rugby players, is a joke. At the end of the day, you are putting young men into situations they are not ready for. That is the situation that we have and ultimately it shows on the scoreboard.”
Too often our franchises are guilty of trying to win every cup on offer – they focus on quantity and not on quality. Many franchises in South Africa have almost bankrupted themselves in trying to keep up. Following on from my call to cull both professional provinces and an overstock of professional players in SA, it is time for teams to focus on quality again.
Instead of having a senior Super Rugby squad of 60 players – the Sharks and Bulls are two prime examples here – recruit a squad of 40, all of whom can and will play throughout the year. There are too many examples of players carrying tackling bags for most of the year.
Pool the resources better, ensuring better contracts for those who make it, and bolster the Varsity and Gold Cups with the rest. Sure, we will always lose a few players here and there to overseas teams, but there is a cap to everything. Stronger, more focused resources will lead to stronger Super Rugby squads. This in turn will lead to a stronger, more focused Springbok squad.
Professional rugby in South Africa needs a reality check. Unions that contract 150-180 players are weakening the system at its base. It needs to stop.