SA sends boys to battle men

Brenden Nel

“It was men against boys.” Jake White’s infamous statement after the Boks’ 2004 loss to England at Twickenham rings as true today as it did way back then.

For then it was a match that saw the debut of one Bryan Habana among a load of talent that included the likes of Bakkies Botha, Schalk Burger, Victor Matfield and Fourie du Preez. But while they had the talent, they never had the experience and they were brutally exposed on the RFU’s hallowed ground.

That statement made me think about the task Rassie Erasmus has on his hands, the task every South African Super Rugby coach faces every season and the impossible expectation that we put on these folks when it comes around.

We tend to love the fact that we produce so much talent in South Africa that we never have to nurture and develop any player to his potential.  How often do coaches shrug when losing a player and point to the next talent coming through the junior ranks?

Couple this with the enduring attitude among rugby players that if they aren’t a Springbok by the age of 24, they need to head overseas, and we can see why more than 400 players play outside South Africa every year.  This has led to our teams losing the fight that was once a hallmark of South African rugbyy. Now, players don’t fight for their places, they simply phone their agents and look for a better deal in France, Japan or England.

And the knock-on effects have been drastic. The Currie Cup has been reduced to an under-23 competition in essence, and the depth of South African rugby has been eroded. A study commissioned by SA Rugby found the majority of professional players in the country are 24 and under.

Our rugby stocks are becoming younger and younger. We’re sending in boys to do the fighting of men. In the words of John Mitchell, we’re “increasingly asking young men to do a task they aren’t equipped to do.”

To do some analysis of this, take into account the average ages of the three major provincial competition winners over the past few months. Saracens have an average age of 26.6 years per player, Leinster 25.6 and the Crusaders 26.7 years per player.

Take this a bit further and 60 percent of Saracens’ player corps is made up of internationals, Leinster 93% and the Crusaders 73%. Interestingly, more than 80% of the Leinster and Crusaders’ player groups are graduates from their academies.

The secret to their success isn’t hard to see then. They keep their players, develop them through the junior ranks and keep them into the senior ranks and translate that into success. It’s a simple model – and in the case of the two European teams, they can add marquee players to bolster their squads.

The upshot is that players are developed and nurtured. Experience is passed down through seniority and players develop with experience around them.

Compare that to South Africa and it is easy to see where the disconnect is.  Of the 989 professional players in this country – seniors and juniors – some 700 are 24 and under (more than 70% of our players).

Dig a little deeper and you will find that only 129 are 25 or 26 years of age and then it drops significantly. Just 160 players across 14 rugby unions are older than 26 years old.

Think about that for a minute. Whereas championship winning sides are an average of 26/27 years old, the majority of South African rugby players are between 18 and 24 years old. And we expect them to compete against the best in the world, without experience.

The Lions have done well precisely because they have kept experience in the province, and have kept a core group together for six years.

Any top international team has a good mix of old heads, full of experience, mixed with youthful exuberance. The question is, with just over a year to the World Cup, can Rassie Erasmus do the same with the Springboks.

The model for 2019 looks to cut the number of professional players in half, to 459 players. Not only will streamlining allow provinces to get their finances right through some tough decisions, it will also see talent spread around.

No longer will provinces be able to contract massive groups of players who hang around on salaries and see little playing time. A maximum group of 45 players will be the norm, and teams will be forced to keep within these bounds.

Only then will teams be able to offer salaries that can keep players in the country. Only then will players hopefully think twice before leaving.

Until those changes are made, Jake’s words will ring in our ears. It simply has to change if there is to be any hope of long term success.

- Brenden Nel

Let's chat

  • John Comyn

    With the two Schalks Burger & Brits factored in I would have thought Sarries average would be a lot higher. I get the point though. Jake Whites WC side had some serious pensioners.

    • minging

      Clearly you ”dont’ get the point’. JW’s team were boys in 2004 and peaking in 2007… name the pensioners (outside of Du Randt and Monty).

      As for the the writer using Northern Hemisphere teams, he’s being deliberately obtuse as the majority of their sides incorporated Southern Hemisphere players finishing off their careers.

      As for the Mitchell quip. When you have political meddling affecting squad selections there us always going to be a surplus of quantity over quality, just as there are always going to be players pushed into situations they are not ready for.

  • Barry Smith

    The drivers are money and Springbok selection. Most hang around in the hope of a Springbok place, but in the absence of recognition, they are lured overseas by money and frankly why not.
    Curbing the number of professional contracts will also not help, in fact it would likely detrimentaly affect our pool of young talent coming through. We have already seen the French Clubs with cheque book in hand signing our school leavers, so if we eradicate contracts for juniors we will be playing directly into the hands of talent scouts. Once these guys are lost overseas, they are gone forever!

    • John Comyn

      989 contracted players is ludicrous and not sustainable. Very few will make the cut as internationals and regardless of how big the cheque book is very few will get contracted by overseas clubs. In fact many don’t make super rugby sides. In my opinion halving the number makes sense. To maintain the integrity of the breed you need to cull the weak.

    • Dean

      Of course, SA rugby cannot keep going the way it is. They are in massive debt and can’t afford to pay that many players. They should cut the amount of professional unions in SA by half too. Half of them are run by a bunch of muppets. It’s time SA rugby separate the cream from the crop. Bring back the best players and coaches and keep the top one’s in SA. I don’t think it’s a matter of eradicating contracts entirely for juniors. It’s about identifying the best among them and keeping those guys in SA. In NZ they identify the future All Blacks from a young age and put them into the system. They keep them there and develop them until they receive a national contract. Why wouldn’t we do the same?

  • SweetAz

    The elephant in the room,—-EFF, ANC, Land Expropriation, BEE, Junk Status, uncontrolled criminality, infrastructure erosion, etc etc. Let me rephrase, the HERD of elephants in the room, its all good and well to debate these things in purely rugby terms, but rugby is not played in a vacuum so this discussion is in reality pointless. I’m not young anymore and I was never good enough at rugby for me to aspire to anything higher than second-team rugby, BUT if I were a young man with the potential to make a living playing rugby I would be running as fast as my feet could carry me to get the hell out of South Africa.

    • Maxwell

      I guess I can say welcome to the club. I had to give my dream of playing top rugby and cricket when I was 19 years old, because of mammoths in the room.

      • SweetAz

        Jaaaaa Swaer,–I once got 9 wickets for 11 runs as an under 15 cricketer, but that was back in 1974 and the only future I was worried about consisted of 2 years Army and any kind of pro sporting career was only for rich kids whose parents could send them overseas.

    • Herman Schroder?

      For once we agree on something but that is a separate issue for another time but I concur, it is quite frankly intolerable. As far as rugby is concerned however all our teams play under similar conditions, restrictions, dubious laws, fears etc but one has to rise above these challenges not so ?. So it’s easy to hide behind these negative factors and roll over as some have done or do your best under difficult circumstances. If one team can do it why not the others ? Cheers.

    • Barry Smith

      Sadly, I am sure that it does add momentum to decision making and changing contract structures will not really help these aspects!

  • Herman Schroder?

    Rassie must go the whole hog and ignore overseas players anyway. Until the rules of engagement are clarified in the availability stakes it will be an ongoing problem as to who is available and when. You cannot develop a team culture and continuity with bits and pieces floating in and out at the whim of some overseas mogul. NZ has taught us that you build from within and the rest will follow.

    Rassie is in a unique position to do just that. He won’t be fired for non performance with his teflon coated contract so he should throw caution to the wind and hand pick a squad of players to do the job. Players must have the skills to play expansive rugby and the mental fortitude to persevere until they succeed. They will lack experience initially but if they have the necessary attributes they will soon respond to the challenge. In any case there is a hard core of established players who have remained in SA who can underpin the newbies. Nothing ventured nothing gained.

    My only proviso is that selection should be on merit ONLY. Anything less and we are just fooling ourselves and undermining the central requirement of building a team culture, mutual respect. If Rassie fails to do that it will become his ‘achilles heel’ in the long run. Cheers.

  • Stanley

    A maximum of 45 players? I think that will be 1 player short for the big unions considering that 23 in the matchday team is the norm and no longer 22. Teams like WP, Sharks, Bulls & Lions will need to contract 23 players for CC and another 23 for SuperRugby. They will than have to dig into their age group teams should have 4 or 5 injuries at once.
    Secondly, I think Unions should identify talent, sign him for 5-6 years (that should be enough time to build experience and a winning team) and keep them bind to their contract when the pound/yen come knocking. That is if you are serious about building a winning brand otherwise you can just sell your best players each and everyone and make huge profits in the bank but huge losses on ticket sales (bums on seats).

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