Rugby teeters on the cutting edge

The Community Cup finals, played in George over the long Easter weekend, should have provided a timely wake-up call for some of the extremely well rewarded players in South Africa’s five Super Rugby franchises.

The constraints of having to earn a living outside the game forced the eight club teams to play three games in five days. On Easter Monday, broken bodies and egos covered the field at Outeniqua Park. And then, on Tuesday, they all had to return to real life.

Among the participants were several with experience in Super Rugby. There was even a Springbok on view in Jongi Nokwe, who played for College Rovers, the club champions of KwaZulu-Natal. Nokwe is just 32 and it is only six years since he rewrote the record books by scoring four tries for the Boks against the Wallabies in a Test at Ellis Park.

The eventual champions were Rustenburg Impala, who beat Roodepoort in an attritional final played in the cold and wet conditions that George specialises in. At flyhalf for Impala was Naas Olivier, a talented kicker of the rugby ball, who played four seasons of Super Rugby for the Stormers and Cheetahs. Like Nokwe, Olivier is just 32.

At the same time as the Community Cup finals were in full swing, the South African Rugby Union (Saru) announced the national under-20 team that will be contesting the Junior World Championships in New Zealand six weeks from now. Among the names on view, there were four who have already played Super Rugby: Handre Pollard of the Bulls; Andre Esterhuizen of the Sharks; and Sergeal Petersen and Aidon Davis of the Kings.

The squad is filled with talent and, perhaps uniquely, boasts two sets of twins, both from KwaZulu-Natal: Dan and Jean-Luc du Preez and Jesse and Dan Kriel. They have a former Springbok prop forward, Dawie Theron, as coach and a host of back-up personnel whose task is simple: to try and ensure that each of the 28 is prepared optimally for a life in first-class rugby.

No longer a breeding ground
And yet, statistics prove that less than 50% will make it, which brings us back to the Community Cup. Like it or not, club rugby is no longer a breeding ground for first-class rugby. These days, if you haven’t cracked a provincial contract by the age of 21, you are almost certainly never going to make it. Provinces contract players straight from school and the clubs get the castoffs.

At the Community Cup, most teams were populated by players in their mid- to late 20s. Most had a thirty-something in their ranks, however, such as Hamiltons, the champions of the Cape, who had Attie Winter at prop. Winter played for South Africa under-21s in 2000 alongside such luminaries as Wikus van Heerden, CJ van der Linde and Butch James, all of whom claimed winner’s medals in the 2007 World Cup.

Also in that 2000 squad were John Cooper, Monwabisi Mdyesha, Neil du Plessis and Bandile Ncunyana. You can be forgiven for asking, “Who?” at this point. These are the ones who didn’t make it. They played a few seasons for minor provinces and then disappeared – their dreams of Springbok glory and major paydays forever dashed.

And so, when we look at South Africa’s Super Rugby franchises just past the halfway stage in this year’s competition, it should be with the foregoing in mind. Who is there for the long haul and who has already reached the apex and will never earn such easy money again? Who, furthermore, is there because the money doesn’t matter and will, therefore, in a few years’ time, be bolstering the ranks of club rugby?

This is important, because the day is coming when the cosy salaries of Super Rugby might be a thing of the past. There are movements afoot in Australia and New Zealand to eject South Africa from the southern hemisphere showpiece. If that were to happen Saru would, in the short term, have to come up with an entirely new structure to the domestic season.

Such a structure might go something along these lines: February to April, Varsity Cup; May to July, Community Cup; August to October, Currie Cup. The Springboks would continue to host incoming tours in June and play in the Rugby Championship in August and September.

It’s actually not a bad model, but one thing is missing: money. The deal originally brokered by Louis Luyt in 1995 with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation has bankrolled the game in the southern hemisphere ever since. Take that money away, and everything falls over. Players in the Super Rugby franchises earning between R2-million and R4-million a year might overnight have to get by on a quarter of that amount.

It is at this point that an important line is drawn. Right now, the Community Cup is for the castoffs, but down the line, it might be at the cutting edge.

It is not preposterous to speculate that we could return to the days when playing for your province or country was not an end in itself, but a reward for the hours spent at a proper job while dreaming of making a living from playing sport.

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