After last week’s NFL draft, Affies old boy Gerhard de Beer was signed by the Buffalo Bills.
A former SA junior discus champion, 23-year-old De Beer (2.01m, 141kgs) just graduated from the University of Arizona on an athletic scholarship.
People say our rugby is struggling because our best players are in Europe and Japan, but here’s a boy who has grown up in Pretoria and experienced our rugby culture, and now – a couple of years after playing American football for the first time – he’s seen as good enough to begin a professional career with the Buffalo Bills.
That’s how talented our sportsmen are. We’ve got genetic freaks that can go from one sport to the other and still be superstars.
We won 13 gold medals at the Commonwealth Games, including the men’s triathlon, Chad le Clos took three in the pool, Luvo Manyonga won the long jump and Akani Simbine aced the 100 metres before helping South Africa to silver in the men’s 4X100m relay.
We’ve also got some of the world’s best golfers and it makes you realise that, no matter what sport we do, we produce an incredible number of world-class sportsmen for such a small country.
Each of those athletes is being recognised in a sport that has fully embraced professionalism. We can’t say the same about rugby, and maybe that’s why we’re not seeing the same success with the Springboks.
I say ‘maybe’ because amateur traditions aren’t always compatible with the demands of professionalism.
Looking at De Beer makes you wonder whether rugby shouldn’t also have a draft system. The way the game is set up now, we’ve got unions that stockpile the best players and murder the market for all of the other teams.
If you’re running a professional sport, you have to actively learn from rival codes around the world. Part of what I do as a rugby coach is to visit professional teams and learn from them. I went to visit Toyota’s women’s basketball team the other day – half of the team plays for Japan’s Olympic basketball side and I went there to see how they train, how they recruit and contract players, what formations they play in, how their analysis system works, who does their conditioning to make sure they can jump higher, and who works on their hand-eye coordination. All of that applies to rugby in one way or another.
The NFL has marketed the annual college draft so that it’s a successful event in itself and people all over the world tune in to see who gets picked first overall. Soccer has a transfer window, Rugby League, pro baseball and pro football have a draft system.
Rugby Union has nothing.
Part of that is because the game is much newer to professionalism. But maybe we need to start learning from those other sports. We’ve been quite quick to learn about jumping from basketball and using wrestling techniques for our breakdown, but we haven’t taken the same lessons from other sports’ structures.
We’re seeing shrinking match-attendance figures and poor results while our top players are overseas, but one of our high school rugby players has just been drafted by the Buffalo Bills. There’s a message in that.
Rugby has been slow to turn truly professional because people are holding on, sometimes rightly, to all the old-school rugby values.
I looked at the reaction to Bryan Habana announcing his retirement last week and it’s quite unfair that he isn’t popular throughout South Africa because he was a phenomenal player.
Maybe it’s because he played for the Lions, the Bulls and the Stormers. I wonder whether he wouldn’t have been more celebrated if, like Fourie du Preez and Bakkies Botha, he had only played for one province throughout his career.
But top players changing teams would be par for the course if rugby adopted a fully professional model, so we have to recognize that professionalism comes at a price.
Doc Craven warned that money would jeopardise the blazers and ties that go with rugby’s traditions and values.
That’s the dilemma – camaraderie and having a beer with the opposition after the game will eventually go out the window in a truly professional set up because with something like a draft system you could go from playing in Cape Town to playing in Pretoria from one year to the next.
In Doc Craven’s day nobody ever went from Northern Transvaal to Western Province and any suggestion to do that would have been seen as cheapening rugby in South Africa. A lot of the value we place in rugby is related to the ethos of the unions and the provincial and national jerseys.
We weren’t even able to fully embrace professionalism when the opportunity was presented in Super Rugby. In New Zealand, they’ll pick a guy from Auckland to play for the Crusaders, but in South Africa we probably don’t have one guy playing for a Super Rugby team that doesn’t also play for the main province in that ‘franchise’.
New Zealand pushed for the move to a franchise system and we initially followed with guys from SWD and the Pumas playing for the Stormers and Bulls respectively. But then we moved away from that, so we’ve been fielding provincial teams against New Zealand’s regional sides for years, and we wonder why we’re getting pumped.
Maybe it’s time for us to stop being half-pregnant and go flat out. I don’t have all the answers but I do know that what we’re doing now isn’t winning. And it’s not because of a lack of sporting talent – a kid from Pretoria is playing for the Buffalo Bills and we had the fastest sprinter at the Commonwealth Games.
We’ve got to decide whether we want rugby to be professional. If we do, then it’s time to go all in.