Player draft for rugby? – Jake

Jake White

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.

- Jake White

Let's chat

  • John Comyn

    Good article. Another thing we don’t do well is make enough noise about our top players unless he happens to be from your province. It seems to me that the AB’s, to a man, are adored by all New Zealanders. Why would Ritchie McCaw contemplate leaving NZ when he is treated like a God in NZ. A draft system could go a long way in resolving this.

  • Sharky

    Looks like Jake has been reading my past comments. I have been advocating a draft system with central contracting in South African rugby for ages.

    That said, a big Affies Old Boy getting into an NFL team is hardly an indication of South African sports talent. In all honesty playing as an offensive lineman requires size, strength and very little else. Hence the fact that many of them sport impressive beer bellies.

    Just checked and guess what? Gerhard de Beer has been drafted as an offensive linesman. What a guess!

    • Chris Mouton

      Pardon me, Sharky, but you have no idea what you are talking about. I’ve been playing American football for 4 years now and the O-Line requires size, strength, speed and good reaction time. Personally I’m playing D-Line, so I play against these guys and their blocking schemes can be quite challenging and complex.

      I used to belittle American football, as I’ve been playing rugby my entire life, but the skillset required for American football is a lot different. Those beer bellies you are referring to are strong cores made to withstand massive amounts of pressure. Where many weightlifters require lifting belts for deadlifts, Linemen can do that with ease due to their massive cores.

      I still prefer rugby, but seeing that the sport isn’t very popular here, I’ll take American football to get my contact sport fix.

      • Sharky

        Yup – size, strength (core included) and very little else. The very little else is the ability to move you feet once or twice to the side (on occasion) and to hold on to the person in front of you. So maybe throw a bit of hand speed in there too. That is all that is required. No ball handling skills. No foot speed. No vision. Very, very little fitness. 99% brute strength. So if someone is big and strong with no football experience I’d start him off in the offensive line. Even if he gets out of breath going up a flight of stairs he’d probably do a good job.

        Now if you were to argue that the defensive line requires some actual athletic skill then I would agree with you. But not the offensive line.

        • Chris Mouton

          Sharky, you have no idea what you are talking about. Move your feet once or twice to the side? Pffft. Have you ever seen Counter plays, Reach blocks or Cross blocks? How many Quarterback sacks have you seen in your life? O-Line have to have nimble feet in order to do pass protection and to adapt when the D-Line attacks them. Very, very little fitness? So, I guess it’s not these unfit players that can barely climb a flight of stairs that do the blocks against Linebackers? Have you seen the speed of a Linebacker? I play against these guys. They are as much of an athlete as any other on the team. Next time do some actual research before you spout such rubbish.

        • Martie

          It is sad to see how uninformed people like Sharky tries to impress people with his “knowledge”
          of the game. He does not even respect the comments of real football player. As a person with inside knowledge of the foot ballplayers training you would be surprise to their level of fitness. It is not just a physical game but a mind game to outsmart and outwit your opponent – (even if the uninformed cant see that.) It is almost the same as to say anybody that is small enough to fit a formula one car can drive in the Grand prix, just press the petrol button and go. To belittle someone else just because you do not have the same interest as he or she speaks volumes of your caracter.

          • Sharky

            Thanks for your comment Martie – but to be clear I’m not belittling anyone . It is a fact that if you have a big strong guy with no football experience you would put him in the offensive line. Fact! Why? Well, for all of the reason I mentioned above. If they’re faster, a bit more agile and perhaps able to catch a ball then they may go into the defensive line.

            I remember watching an interview a few years back where one of the Patriots’ coaches was talking about Vincent Wilfork (defensive lineman). He was saying that they were messing around in practice one day and put him in to catch a punt. Everyone was surprised that he caught it. The coach said that that just showed how special a player he was. Why? Because no one expects a linesman to be able to field a high ball. The fact that such a basic lack of skill was accepted shocked me at the time. But that is perhaps indicative of the position and linesmen in general.

  • Pieter

    With the NFL draft college player (mostly seniors) are selected by the 32 teams In rugby the draft would most likely be from players leaving High school, because they dont have the same college set up for ruby. Also there kids would then not have the opportunity to go to college and have a career after rugby.
    Also is the draft of players from schools around the world? And which club or franchise gets to pick first and what is the order of picks after that?

  • Legend

    Great article from Jake,

    But I would rather read how this could be done. It is very easy to say such things, but let’s have his vision of this in practice. Provincialism is in Ireland and that doesn’t hold them back from achieving success.

    • Legend

      I think that if we hired successful, tried and tested coaches across the franchises(short term) we would have success, and then long term we should be investing in coaches(pathway development, coaching university/college etc)

  • Dean

    Great idea and I’m in support of it. Zelim Nel proposed this idea last year, when he spoke about scrapping the franchise model for our 4 Super Rugby teams. Replacing it with 4-6 new franchises who are not selected based on region but rather equally strong. This 14 province system is rubbish, half of them are poorly run and bankrupt anyway. SA rugby has the opportunity now to make a change that will benefit them in the long run. Would they ever even consider it though? They have administrators at top level who struggle to stay out of the limelight for all the wrong reasons! Hell, even Supersport don’t allow commenting on their website anymore. Out the window goes freedom of speech.

    • Chris Mouton

      Yeah, this new format of Supersport really doesn’t work for me. Maybe trolls like Petrus & co. finally got to them. It’s a shame really…

  • Barton Bligh

    SA ended behind NZ on the Commonwealth Games 2018 medals table. Besides winning back to back rugby world cups (as well as usually dominating the sevens and the womens’ codes) they also excel in many top-grade sports, like sailing (they hold the high-tech America’s Cup — the oldest trophy in any sport) and they dominate SA in netball, field hockey (men and women) basketball and several other team sports. With a population barely one-tenth the size.

    • Sharky

      Population size will only get you so far. True – with a large population you have a greater variety of genetic material to chose from, but in the end it’s financial investment that brings the medals.

      That said, SA are consistent in the Commonwealth medals table. NZ are all over the place.

  • John

    I’ve been trying to tell everybody that rugby is not a sport as we knew it anymore, it’s a business. The rugby players are employees just like u and me who do a desk job or whatever. The biggest problem is that those in charge of the unions have not realized that yet – good luck to them !

  • Gerhard

    I believe that Profesional Rugby starts and ends with the governing body SA Rugby and this is where our success and failure lies.Firstly the financial aspect has to be run by successful business men and board of directors and in turn they will source the best coach monies can buy to have a winning team and the coach would therefore identify and select the best players to achieve success.For this reason there has to enough funds and sponsors and you would only get that if the team is successful as sponsors will only link their brand to a successful professional team. With all that said the rugby players are assets to generate profits.This brings me to the reasons why our teams has not achieved success over a number of years.Firstly I believe that this due to our rugby players shortage of the required skills sets.The only way to fix this is for SA Rugby to have training college/facilities to put any rugby coach from school level to the professional teams with the best training material and lecturers/coaches whether this is through SA Rugby Academies that are situated through out the country so that all.I have for many years been frustrated when I noticee from sschool level to Super Rugby and Springboks see players lack skills setts and this is not noticed by our coaches, because most are taught by others coaches who also lack the proper training to teach the players this aspect.I have for manyy years been a member of various rugby coaching sites with training material from top international coaches and players and have noticed how they always look for new ways to improve their game for example how to slow down the ball of the opposition new moves etc and their coaches regularly talk to one another and share ideas which I don’t think we do or maybe it is just done in some areas.Whilst there are Academies in some provinces and schools not every coach or player can attend so when players comes through the rranks they get to the top levels and the Super Rugby Coach or Springbok Coach has to teach the players the necissary skills which they should have been tough from School level.Until we get to this it will be uphill battle to compete in an ever changing rugby environment with the top international teams.Just to name one simple skill I regularly see some of our players at top level cannot perform is when tackled our players with the contesting defender hold onto the ball instead of immediatelyy place the bal with the correct body position arms length away and we get penalised as our player holds the ball agains his chest like a little baby..and I can do my nuts.and tthink wy the hell can the coach not teach the player this simple skill.There are many others anss some weak points is 90-99% of our players cannot catch a high ball/up and under andd this can bee coached with many training material available.Tackling is n big problem and we teach our players to tackle high and then gets handed of by opponents and tthey score a try and it seems the players do not haave the skillss to tackle the attacker around the anckles or waist at least.This iss a big problem I hhave noticed at the Lions and other teams.The 7’s team which is exceptionally good on attack has lost thee last couple of finals just for this way where the plaayer got handed off and the other team scored.Once again there are many trainng material to coach a playyer and give him confidence to tackle. .

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