“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.