Worth their weight in gold

Andy Capostagno Rugby

August 1 1998 was a big day for South African rugby, but will it be bigger or more important than August 7? On August 1 the contractual agreement between the South African Rugby Football Union (Sarfu) and the squad which won the World Cup in 1995 came to an end.

On Friday, contractual agreements between the current Springbok squad and Sarfu are due to be put in place. And so, bearing in mind that Springbok rugby is currently on a high, what with beating the All Blacks and all, it might be prudent to be pessimistic for a while.

It is far too simplistic to lay the blame for Springbok under- performance since 1995 squarely at the feet of unwise contractual agreements. But history seems to record that once it became clear to Sarfu that the World Cup squad had been rewarded not wisely, but too well, a climate of mistrust between players and administrators grew.
If that were not the case, how come three years later so few of those players are in line for the latest Sarfu handout?

Let us remember the men who won the cup. Francois Pienaar, Gavin Johnson, Brendan Venter, Joel Stransky, Garry Pagel, Marius Hurter, Rudolf Straeuli and Adriaan Richter: all either playing or about to play in England, except for Richter who is on his way to Italy.

Pieter Hendriks, James Small, Christiaan Scholtz, Japie Mulder, Johan Roux, Os du Randt, Robbie Brink and Kobus Wiese. All either injured, retired or both.

Andr Joubert, Hennie le Roux, Balie Swart, Chris Rossouw, Hannes Strydom and Ruben Kruger. All, for varying reasons, currently out of favour.

That’s 22 names, the same number you now need to take the field and sit on the bench in an international. So who’s left? Joost van der Westhuizen, James Dalton, Mark Andrews, Naka Drotske and Krynauw Otto. That’s five out of 27.

Chester Williams famously chose not to sign a contract, a decision for which he has sometimes been lauded, but one which cost him a lot of money when he was forced to miss two whole seasons with injuries to both knees.

What does this tell us? That modern rugby is becoming increasingly attritional? That the value of the rand is forcing players abroad? That form is temporary? That South Africa won the World Cup with the wrong players?

Or is it really one for the Oliver Stone conspiracy theorists; that Sarfu has gradually squeezed the players out because some of its members disagreed with paying huge sums to ungrateful recipients?

If the latter is the case, why is Sarfu currently going down the same road? Surely the point that the foregoing has taught us is that contracting flesh and bone is unwise.

Surely there are too many variables in the life of a current international rugby player to expend huge amounts of capital on the likelihood of his being available to play the day after tomorrow. Or do stock market crashes teach us nothing?

Now don’t get me wrong, I believe players should be paid what they’re worth. Gary Teichmann, for instance, deserves considerable reward for taking the brickbats and, latterly the bouquets of being captain with such equanimity.

Remember that Teichmann did not make the World Cup squad and who now remembers why Robbie Brink was preferred both to him and to Tiaan Strauss?

Teichmann’s first cap came in South Africa’s first post World Cup test, against Wales, and subsequently he has set a new record for consecutive Springbok appearances while being paid a fraction of the amount devoted to the World Cup squad members.

And let us not forget that Sarfu has had a major windfall thanks to the collapse of the rand. Player payments are based squarely on money obtained from the apparently bottomless coffers of Rupert Murdoch, money which is paid to Sarfu in denominations with the faces of United States presidents on them.

The rand has lost 50% to the dollar lately. That is why Sarfu can afford to talk in terms of the same kind of contracts offered to the World Cup players.

But is it not the case that if Sarfu contracts the leading international players there is no compelling reason for those players to turn out for their provinces? Sarfu keeps telling us that the Currie Cup is the premier domestic competition, but how long will it be supported if the Springboks only play in a handful of games, as has been suggested by several prominent players this week?

We only need to look at the example of cricket, which attracted less than 30E000 people through the turnstyles to watch the Supersport Series last year, principally because players from the national side played in hardly any of the games.

You may have heard of the Supersport Series; it is referred to by the United Cricket Board as the premier domestic competition. It used to be called the Currie Cup.

Supporters of the new contracts will point out that the Springboks will also be contracted to their provinces and that therein lies their motivation. But what is the point of serving two masters? Players should be contracted first and foremost to their provinces and then get paid a huge, one-off sum for each test.

It would, in some ways, be a reversion to the old tradition of paying under the table rather than over it.

Sarfu wants to achieve a stable playing base for the 1999 World Cup, a laudable ambition, but not a very challenging one. Who is thinking about World Cup 2003? Even by 2000, Teichmann may have been supplanted in the side by the precocious King Edward’s youngster Johan van Niekerk.

And the queue of players wanting to pull on the green and gold number 10 shirt may be standing in line behind Affies schoolboy Tiaan Snyman, the player of the tournament at this year’s Craven Week. The year 2000 is just 16 months away. We can only hope that the men who control the purse strings of Sarfu are aware of that.

July

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