/ 21 September 2012

Time to remember no play, no pay

Southland fans celebrate a win in Christchurch
Southland fans celebrate a win in Christchurch

But, as the old saying goes, be careful what you wish for, you might get it. With four rounds remaining in the log section, the Sharks and Lions are on top with 20 points, Western Province and the Griquas have 15 points each  and languishing at the bottom of the table come Free State with 11 and the Blue Bulls with nine.

The top four sides will play in the knockout stages at the end of October, whereas the bottom team will take part in a home-and-away promotion/relegation contest against the winner of the Currie Cup First Division. If that were to happen this weekend, the Blue Bulls would have to beat the EP Kings to retain their status in the Premier Division.

This raises an interesting anomaly for the Pretoria-based union, who might find themselves contesting Super Rugby in the first half of the 2013 season and First Division rugby in the second half. The marketing department at Loftus would then have to come up with a scheme to sell tickets to its public for matches against the Griffons, Leopards, Pumas, Eagles and the rest.

Not surprisingly, there have already been dark mutterings in the corridors of power aimed at making sure this does not happen. The South African Rugby Union (Saru), having dithered for so long over allowing the Kings to play Super Rugby, has acquired plenty of expertise in changing the rules to suit vested interests.

One of the arguments Saru might use to justify extending a lifeline to the Bulls involves the Springboks. Heyneke Meyer's squads have been filled to overflowing with Bulls players, which might explain why the Blue Bulls have been struggling. The union has been forced to choose from its Under-21 side, thereby promoting players to senior rugby before they are ready for the transition.

But the same issue has bedevilled the Sharks and they play the Lions in Johannesburg this weekend in a top-of-the-table clash. It might be argued that the Under-21 talent available to the Sharks is of a better quality than their counterparts at the Bulls, thanks partly to the academy based at Kings Park, which is churning out quality rugby players with impressive regularity.

Perhaps cognisant of this, the Bulls went on an unprecedented buying spree at Craven Week this year, luring nearly 20 of the best young players in the country away from their home provinces. They also offered contracts to most of the 22-player squad that wore the Barberton daisy at Craven Week. But the effects of those signings will be felt only some three years hence if, and it is always a big if with schoolboys, the Bulls scouts have chosen wisely.

What is more likely to save the Bulls in the short term is that they will be able to draw on their full squad come play-off time, as the Rugby Championship will be over. There is even talk that Fourie du Preez and Bakkies Botha will be available for selection if required for those games.

It will all be academic, of course, if the Blue Bulls pull their socks up and start winning again in the next four weeks, but it is the principle that we should be unpacking. This year it might be the Bulls, next year it could be the Sharks or Western Province. There is much to be said for an annual elevator ride between divisions as it spices up the end of the season for the supporters of teams with nothing else to play for.

But where does a well-structured competition begin and the trail of vested interest end? The marketing departments will wring their hands and say they cannot sell sponsorship if they cannot guarantee fixtures against the top teams, which would mean that the union would not be able to pay its players the large salaries currently on offer.

But it may just be time to reassess in a more complete manner. The global financial meltdown is not just something that happens to other people; it affects rugby and the people who support it.

It is time to sell one-year sponsorship packages and it is also time for unions to stop carrying huge squads of players on generous contracts. In New Zealand, which has a far smaller economy than South Africa, the main provincial competition has already taken a step back to the old days of amateurism in order to afford to compete in Super Rugby.

Players in the national provincial championship are in effect paid a match fee and told to get on with their lives. For those players under the radar for national selection and Super Rugby, it entails finding meaningful employment outside the game with the money earned from rugby no more than a handy bonus. That was the norm for more than 100 years and there is no shame in it being so again.