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.