Turn rugby exodus into revenue

Zelím Nel

As Doc Craven predicted, professionalism has changed the rugby landscape forever. The game has such rich traditions that it’s taken the better part of 30 years to see those changes fully manifested, but they’re here now and things are never going back to the way they were before.

At the 1995 Rugby World Cup, almost every contender featured home-grown players drawn from that nation’s domestic rugby.

Next year, upwards of one third of the Bok starting XV could play their club rugby abroad, and the northern hemisphere teams will be littered with southern stars.

Hankering after better times is human nature, but looking over our shoulder instead of at what’s ahead has contributed to South Africa finding itself in big rugby trouble.

It’s time to act.

Instead of stewing over how difficult it is to build teams with hundreds of players getting propelled through international departures by the nose-diving Rand, let’s (belatedly) take the initiative to make that demand work in our favour.

The latest weapon formed to combat the player drain is to chop SA’s base of pro players in half. The thinking is that we spend too much of the money pie on fringe talent that play a bit role in the bigger picture.

While the move has some merit, it’s not going to slow down the trend of top talent being indiscriminately skimmed by European clubs, or solve SA Rugby’s financial dilemma.

But that will change quickly if we stop wallowing and start pushing back.

Anyone who has been involved in the game abroad will confirm that SA is a goldmine of talent and our players have serious street cred.

So, if the reality is that SA is in the business of exporting players, how long are we going to wait before we start generating some revenue out of this business?

Here’s what we’re going to do: from tomorrow, contracts to first-time professionals (and contract renewals) can only be offered by SA Rugby.

The Bulls are free to approach Johnny Rugby, star flyhalf in the amateur ranks, to negotiate a deal with him, but the contract that he signs will be on an SA Rugby letterhead and there will be two, non-negotiable terms in that contract.

The first is the duration: a minimum of five years commitment for first-timers, three for renewals. And the second is a R3m buyout clause (or the remaining value of his contract, whichever is more).

SA Rugby will pay Johnny’s base salary and annually deduct the cost from the monies they share with the Bulls. The player will be contracted to SA Rugby for five years, and he will be allocated to the Bulls for that period, or until they opt to release or trade him.

Johnny has the security of knowing that, if he’s released by the Bulls, SA Rugby is obliged to pay him a percentage of the balance of his salary – let’s make it 50% for argument’s sake, with the Bulls picking up 20% of that tab – but his buyout clause for overseas suitors remains in place.

So 20-year-old Johnny is set to play all of his professional rugby in South Africa until he’s 25. Let’s say he cracks the Bulls’ starting lineup in his third season and shoots the lights out. Next thing, Mourad Boudjellal is on the phone asking Johnny how he likes his eggs.

No problem; Johnny can go. But it’s going to cost Toulon at least R3m.

Boudjellal pulls a few coins out of the zip section of his wallet and SA Rugby gets a payment notification shortly before they transfer a 20% commission of that buyout fee to the Bulls.

Johnny gets his big payday, SA Rugby get at least R2.4m, and the Bulls get R600k out of the transaction.

Yes, it’s bad news in the sense that South Africa has lost a promising young talent, but Johnny was always going to end up in France. My way, SA comes out of it with a sack of gold coins to be spent on building a moat around our rugby castle.

Agents will respond by trying to take Johnny across the equator when he’s 20. That’s fair play, but it’ll be much tougher selling Mourad on an unproven youngster for big money, and even more difficult selling Johnny on moving abroad to play second division rugby in Arc de Croissant for much less than what he’ll get paid in the Top 14.

And if we look at that buyout mechanism on a broader scale, one of two things is going to happen: SA Rugby is either going to get very rich exporting hundreds of players, or Mourad is going to stop calling.

Either way, South Africa wins.

- Zelim Nel

Let's chat

  • Wesley

    Love it, the best written article from the Nelster ever! Well done. Have to admit, I had my doubts, but all the while you have been holding out on us! Get this to SA Rugby stat!

    • Dr Hoffman

      I only read up to the part were i saw that Zelim Nel wrote the article, ie the 2nd line, then i stopped cause I dont have time to read rubbish from an unprofessional so called journalist like him.

      • Nic

        Perhaps prejudice is the problem; read 1st them comment is a more mature attitude methinks.

    • Johan

      Good article Zelim!

      I have always wondered, why do football teams have to pay US$117 million to transfer Ronaldo, but in rugby the stars are let go for almost free?

      (Relative unknown player Sam Johnstone, went to WBA for £6.5m, or R130 million)

      I’m no lawyer and have no idea how the contracts work, but surely international star players like Habana, Bismark, Louw, Kriel, Willie, etc. could have cost, not US$117 million, but maybe R20 million to transfer to EU/Eng clubs (about £1 million) each?

      This money can be used to improve the club infrastructure, improve salaries…

      Can some lawyer/expert here explain?

  • Blokkies Joubert

    This is too sensible for this forum.

    Great write up.

  • Tank Lanning Tank Lanning

    Nel getting positive comments on a column? Unbelievable scenes … Expecting a pig with lipstick on to fly past my office window soon! It is an excellent concept, though, presented in a really practical way. And sim sala bim, we have central contracting. Let’s make it happen!

    • Dr Hoffman

      I dont believe he is capable of such acts.

    • Blokkies Joubert

      Are you trying to be reasonable when talking to me about a the Springboks?

      Bah! Not possible.

      We must fire them all if they are shit. Also lets fire Rassie too if we lose against the All Blacks. Let’s just have Naas and Mallet pick the team each week based on who is hot right now. Give them all contracts. 6 years, so we dont lose them to France before the next world cup. Put Willemse in on 10 straight in with the All Blacks. He’s 20, he can drive and vote and drink. If he can’t take it he is too soft for the Springboks. If he fails now we fire him, dodge a bullet early.

      Also, we need to shout “quota!” Each time a player of color makes a mistake, it helps. It’s also fair because when a white player makes a mistake we can just call him and the coach a racist.

      I mean, seriously, wheres the fun in trying to be sensible about this shit?

      Rugby is soft. Players are greedy for money. Bring back Kamp Staaldraad!

      • Wanga

        Man this is just pure gold. I am laughing my ass off to this hahaha

      • John Comyn

        Jantjies owns the 10 jersey when we play the All Blacks! The laatjie must still wait a long time before the AB’s pick him at 10 for The Boks. Hansen will be delivering his obligatory speech soon where he talks up Elton and tells us how dangerous the Boks are. Can’t wait!

      • Wesley

        Haha Blokkies you legend, tell ’em like it is! This is straight talk, no bull! You don’t like what Blokkies says, you must be a racist / draadsitter / quota / lefty / righty / snowflake / bloody agent!

        • Blokkies Joubert

          Or a bloody ref…

    • Al

      It certainly makes sense !

      Tank and Zelim has anybody interviewed the top brass at SARU to ask them what their turnaround plan is for the whole of a Rugby in South Africa? We grill the coaches when they lose but Alexander and the other execs seem to get an easy ride.

  • Nsovo Shimange

    Why would Jonny Rugby agree to sign such a contract in the first place? It makes no sense. Why would SA Rugby agree to contract an unknown player for five years? How many of these 20 year olds will they contract for five years? Are SA rugby not 62bar in the dwang already?

    • Wanga

      I think the point is thyat a lot of the young players that are playing in Europe get exposure at the expensive of SA rugby through the unions. SA rugby becomes a pathway for a rugby career for these young guys and when they have become professional players Euro clubs snatch them. What this article advocates for is that in the process of exposing and giving a rugby career path for the young guys they must know that we give them a path provided that we get something out of it, not the hope that they will stay and play for an SA franchise. This way Toloun will be forced to come get Johny even before he has proven he can play professional rugby which will be more of a risk for Euro clubs that at the moment make us invest and take the risk and then they swoop ion to take them when they have developed to a point. Yea this is not a full proof solution, but we have been approaching rugby in a very amateurish way because we could afford to do that as players only left SA when they have finished their Bok careers. Thigs are going to get worse now with the Premiership going super commercial, maybe on top of this contracting system we must seriously think about the Northern move for our franchises to get Euros for our teams and add a good contracting system to that so that we can avoid what just happened to the Cheetahs having lots of their guys snatched from them because they had short contract with the teams.

      • Zelim Nel Zelim Nel

        Thank you for getting it, Wanga!

    • Wesley

      This will work if the contracted player base gets cut and a draft system like American Football gets implemented. Mega bucks are already spent on unproven youngsters or undervalued talent that either gets lost to SA rugby for next to nothing (think Stander) or never gets played because of bias and pecking orders at the unions. Hence our rugby being bled dry. How much was Kolby released for by WP? How much he earning at and for Toulouse at the moment? If you dont use that you are investing money in or receive no proper value from it, at least get something proper for it in return. It is the dumb mantra of many teams, rather buying all the talent they can so that no other team can properly compete, and bleeding the union dry, bad for all involved. I believe the Bulls were very guilty of this under the instruction of their very contraversial high performance manager.

  • Lesego

    If Jurie Roux is convicted at his trial, get Zelim in that SA Rugby hotseat! :)

    Very sensible business plan

    • Johan

      Just don’t let him near team tactics/selections/coaching ! :D

  • Chris Mouton

    I like this concept. It seems relatively simple, yet effective. Sure, it’s not perfect and a 100% foolproof, but at least the unions will be making money of the talent they developed. Look at the player exodus at the Lions just this year. They could’ve had a couple of million rands extra for the departure of Kriel, Mostert, Dreyer, etc. Not a bad idea at all. Maybe that transfer fee should also depend on the amount of experience the player has? I mean a proven guy like Jaco Kriel should get a lot more than a snotkop just out of high school.

  • Barry Smith

    A good article from Zelim the skellum!

    Though, my understanding is that it is already partly in place in that players under contract to a particular Union would have to be bought out of the remainder of their contract by the overseas club, wishing to procure their services. But in these circumstances, the bucks go to the Union in total and are not shared with SA Rugby. Frankly I would be more at ease with the cash going to the unions rather than SA Rugby – they seem to have a way of losing it on a regular basis and there CEO is going to court for stealing 35m!
    There is also a legal aspect to consider whether player’s IP belongs to the player and is his to sell, or whether a third party has the right to make claim to a share of it?

  • Greg Shark

    Mourad and co are already here in RSA at every annual national school boy tournament earmarking the talent they’d want in the future!

    I very much like the idea of central contracting, draft system and transfer fees….why should France, UK pilfer for free talent developed at a cost in RSA?
    If the article was not tongue in cheek then it needs a lot more modeling and scenario planning….has anybody at SARU capable of doing that or will be a show of hands at the old boys club?

  • Chris

    Or we could move all our SR teams to Euro competitions.
    (Feel free to criticize the idea btw. I’m sure I haven’t thought it through enough as I havent had my AM coffee yet)

    The unions will earn most of their money from TV rights etc. in Euros and Pounds making the nosediving Rand work in our favour. Players salary would start to reflect this too taking away the incentive to move in the first place. Player take home pay would possibly be more than EU players as they would be spending at home(housing/Tax etc.) and earning abroad.

    Northern rugby benefits, because there will be more spots for local players opening up. There would also be no reason to not pick SA players in Europe for the Boks as they are already playing against each other in the same comps. Travel will be an issue, but not more than it is today.

    EU Gdp is $19 TRILLION as opposed to the combined SR countries GDP of about $2,2 Trillion.
    If we were treating Rugby as a entertainment commodity , why wouldn’t we want to move to the biggest potential market by a factor of almost 10 X !
    We could even leave 2 teams in SR and alternate them every year.
    Sending some teams to the Japanese leagues could also be a option.

  • Nick.

    I just put my head in my hands and try not to cry.

    Soccer, Gridiron, Basketball have been doing variations on this since before Vince Lombardi.

    And we think this is some kind of moerse idea.

  • SweetAz

    Only problem is that within 6 months 3 million Rand will only be worth about 3 Euros so our players will be leaving for the price of a loaf of bread.

    • Blabla

      Make the 3 million a standard fee in Euros/Pounds…

    • Blabla

      Correction, I meant make it 300 000 Euros

  • Werner B

    This idea is the most positive one I’ve seen. Everything has felt a bit hopeless when it comes to this topic, and I couldn’t escape the feeling of no matter what we do, it won’t work. But this article makes sense. If a plan like this gets put in place, my only fear would be that the guys at the top would waist the money on bonuses and crap like that.

  • Blabla

    Very good concept and for the life of me, I can’t believe something like it hasn’t been implemented ages ago! I’d suggest pushing that 3million up to 4-5mil if he has become a Springbok in said 5 years or starts more than 60% of the games for his franchise. Shrinking the player pool might make such a plan realistic.

  • Neels uys

    Dream on why would a budding superstar sign a 5 year deal with sa rugby

  • Herman Schroder?

    All this gold dust we will be exporting under Nel’s overly optimistic scheme raises a few problems imo.

    1. Did Nel factor in a completely useless governing body in SARU who couldn’t even turn a profit on over R1 Billion of revenue in the last fiscus. Have they even got the nous to handle what will probably turn into a complete fiasco anyway. Can you imagine the in fighting between Unions for a piece of the pie.

    2. How will these premature superstars be valued and will there be any ‘colour’ coding involved there as well. Sorry Mr overseas billionaire the ANC needs you to take one’ black player’ for one ‘white’ player signed up between now and the end of 2019. This 50 / 50 ruling will be reviewed annually after that until the transfers follow our population demographics which would mean roughly 9 blacks for every single white being transferred. This is not negotiable as we need another 100 years to rectify the sins of the past. Stupid I know but isn’t that in effect what’s happening in our rugby now ?

    3. Some have mentioned a move to the NH as the answer. I agree to a point but I believe once there is a major move on the cards there will be a closer scrutiny by the overseas hierarchy as to the racist selection policies of SARU, read ANC. I know the other RC teams don’t bother and neither does the Pro 14 at this stage but all one has to do is tip off some screaming liberal in the UK to get the ball rolling. Might actually be a good thing they are normally very good at highlighting injustices. Would certainly get some action from the old farts at World Rugby.

    4. And then of course how will this impact on the Boks. One assumes there is going to be an even higher presence of mercenaries in the Bok team in years to come if the transfer system takes root. So thrown overboard will be all the structures that would under normal circumstances produce a competitive Bok team, unfortunately not very apparent at the moment anyway. Also to be factored in and like we have found out this year already, will these players be freely available for Bok duty ? Old billionaire suffering from a hangover decides his SA golden boy must be rested this weekend. Bok coach grinding his teeth in frustration because our young superstar was integral to his plans.

    The point I’m making is how can you build a team with a solid team culture and consistency when players are arriving from all over the world at short notice each playing a different style of rugby and weld them into a formidable force with a common game plan to take on the world. We’ll be like English football who have many overseas player in the highly popular EPL and yet England regularly produces a sub standard national team that last won a WC 52 years ago.

    And then the potential fallout with our RC buddies and the impact that will have on both them and us. That in itself is fraught with all kinds of problems especially if we relocate up North and even they may not be as willing to restructure their competitions to accommodate our teams as we may believe. The Six Nations will be a particularly hard nut to crack as a case in point. We relocate to the North and the Australasians will be as pissed off as can be. We could even find ourselves between a rock and a hard place with the North dithering and NZ and Co telling us to shape up or ship out. Regrettably in the middle you have our administratively challenged SARU and we all know how incapable they are at doing anything to stop the rot.

    Otherwise everything is fine it’s even raining in Cape Town at the moment. Oh and just to include the Lions in this brief post ( to please the fans ) here’s the best of luck for Saturday to the foremost exponent of expansive rugby in the country Elton Jantjies. Pity about that ‘expansive game plan’ challenged centre pairing they gave you but Faf, Willie and the two wings are there to support you. Maybe a few skip passes could be the answer. Cheers.

    • Blabla

      You are poking many speculative holes in a theoretical concept that could possibly be the answer to the ongoing and growing player drain problem. Sure everyone will have to be on the same page and it could be refined, but at some point, a massive overhaul must be made in our approach to save the game and to defend the strength of our player pool.

      And I think you missed the point, this will stem the tide of player drainage. More players will opt to stay for longer and more teams will have settled squads like the Lions have had over the past few seasons. Euro clubs will prefer to only look at players who are at the end of their contracts. If not, here’s an example of the benefits of such a contracting system. If the Lions had received 3-5 mil (or standard 300 Euro fee) each for Josh Strauss, Ruan Ackerman and Faff a few years ago when they left (if I recall none of them finished their contracts) then the Lion’s depth could have been consolidated by buying other players or it could have ensured a settled squad by extending 10 top player’s contracts for another year or it could have covered consultancy fees for specialist coaches to up the players skills or been invested in rugby scholarships for future stars or whatever.

      Nel is correct that if a pretty penny could be earned for players, who leave when it’s inconvenient for the franchise, it could help strengthen our teams. I hope he emailed this idea to SARU.

      • Herman Schroder?

        I take your point and if the system is adopted and works well then their will be more cash around but the Bok development as a cohesive unit will still prove problematical imo. Also identifying players and geving them lokg term contracts with a failed SARU might be an even a bigger obstacle to overcome especially if you factor in the ‘transformation’ imperatives. Yes there is no easy answer to the woes of SA rugby.

    • SweetAz

      Just another thing,—-perhaps like so many England Football supporters we just need to actually give up on the Boks and concentrate on building our Franchises into super franchises ala Manchester United or Chelsea. That way we can stop worrying about the Boks and just be “tribal” about our Franchise,—if we could somehow inveigle those franchises into the European scene, it would be a win win.

      Leave the Boks to the ANC and let them F*k Voort into irrelevancy, just like Banana Banana. Once the threat of the government is removed from the Franchises they can be truly professional, choose who they want and give the Government the finger.
      I can bet you Real Madrid, Man U, Chelsea, Oakland Raiders, NY Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Chicago Bruins et al do not give 2 sh*ts about what any government has to say regarding their selection policies.

    • SweetAz

      I wonder what your excuse for EJ is going to be come Monday?—Oh I see you are getting it in early with the “challenged centre pairing”. The club vs country thing is applicable to everybody except NZ BUT its actually something that is starting to affect them as well, —-AB coach is already crying to the Government for money. Germany seems to do quite well in Football despite the National team/Club issue,—-perhaps we could find out why?

      For the rest, I totally agree, World Rugby constitution expressly forbids at the risk of sanction ANY discrimination based upon race, religion, sexuality.—-It will be quite entertaining watching the usual apologists dance on the head of a pin trying to explain how “quota’s” in a team is not discrimination. But then who knows, these same people have managed to convince the world for over 20 years that brutally attacking, torturing, raping women and children in their homes is “normal crime”………So I guess “normality” is a very subjective thing.

      • Herman Schroder?

        See my comments to John Comyn re Jantjies on this site. Well it’s Germany after all, enough said.

        I do concur, World Rugby needs a wake up call big time. Maybe get Peter Hain riled up again, lol. Cheers.

  • Sharky

    Honest question for any budding legal eagles out there:

    Under SA employment law can you prevent someone from seeking employment elsewhere without continuing to pay them their salary? In other words, if Johnny Rugby decides he dislikes the Bulls’ latest abortion of a Super Rugby kit and refuses to play can the Bulls prevent him from going elsewhere/abroad without continuing to pay him? Is there any otehr alternative than terminate his contract and claim damages? And in that case can you claim damages on unrealised sums (i.e. the money the Bulls would have gotten if he happened to go abroad)? Also, once the contract is terminated for non-performance can the Bulls claim money from a foreign club that only began negotiating with him after the contract was terminated?

    I’ve never seen a professional sporting contract so would like to know if there is provision for the above. Does anyone smarter than me know?

    • Herman Schroder?

      No response Sharkey so no one is smarter than you. Cheers.

      • Sharky

        LOL!! My mother used to call me a know-it-all, but I never for a second thought that it was true.

  • Mike

    I like Zelim’s plan, it makes sense on a basic level BUT it still doesn’t solve the main problem with SA rugby and SA as a whole…your government and the writing on the wall. Why would someone stay in a country that blatantly discriminates while also working for peanuts? Why wouldn’t someone, who is great at their job, not jump at the chance to move to a safer country where they will be properly paid for their services? Rugby player or limo driver, it doesn’t matter. One can say “pride for your country, that’s what matters” but that is BS when it comes to your safety and being rightfully paid for a job. I have been to SA, beautiful country, but your government and the dim-witted majority of the population are only going to make things 100x worse as time goes on. If a rugby player wants to move to Europe to make what he rightfully deserves AND does not have to worry about living in a secured compound then God bless him. If SA rugby doesn’t want him to represent the colors of the country on the rugby pitch simply because he plays club rugby abroad then that is their lose and someone else’s gain. You CANNOT compare other nations to SA. Nowhere else on this planet does someone have to worry about being the absolute, no questions asked, best at their profession but possibly not being employed because he/she is white, it doesn’t happen and won’t happen anywhere else. It is the reason why players are leaving in droves, it is quite simple. The flood of talent heading overseas will not end, it needs to be embraced at this point because it is only the beginning. Sad to say.

    • SweetAz

      Agreed, unfortunately, South Africa is run by people who think denial is a river in Egypt. They and their millions of cheerleaders can be seen burning and looting everything of consequence on a daily basis, so to expect rugby to somehow be immune to this clusterfork is a blinkered naive approach. All these desperate scratchings for a solution are somewhat like a headless chicken running around in its last few dying circles trying to find its head and arse in the dust.

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