Don’t panic about player exodus

The annual exodus of South African players should not be a concern because it is not weakening the game in the country, writes MARK KEOHANE in Sport Monthly magazine.

South Africa’s rand can’t compete with the euro. South Africa’s Vodacom Super Rugby franchises can’t compare with the private club ownership in France and the United Kingdom.

Players, with an earning capacity of up to five times the net return in South Africa, would be committing professional suicide in rejecting an offer to play in Europe and the United Kingdom’s premier tournaments. Equally the commercially enriching Japanese league.

So, why the fuss in South Africa? Why the media storm? Why the hysteria among fans? Why the indignation from an administration schooled in the rugby ways of a pint of beer being reward enough for the privilege of playing the game?

Why the outdated argument that a professional move, that rewards excellence with euros and not rands, is somehow unpatriotic? Why the applause for those who either cannot command commercial interest from abroad; alternatively invest in a local way of living and the comforts of familiarity?

Why in 2015, two decades into professionalism, are players punished for being too good? Why are players, whose professional career span is closer to five than 10 years, portrayed as mercenary because of a desire to maximise the cash value of their talent?

Why is it reported as a hammer blow to the functionality and appeal of the South African Super Rugby challenge? South Africa, in 19 years of Super Rugby and Rugby Championship, have won three each of the respective titles. The South African challenge has never consistently set the standard.

There has been an occasional exceptional year, which for New Zealand historically has been simply a normal year. The European exodus is not a crisis because South Africa’s Super Rugby and Rugby Championship situation has never been exceptional.

Super Rugby was designed to improve Australian rugby, in appeal and in playing numbers. The sport, pre the 1996 launch of Super Rugby, was confined to New South Wales and Brisbane.

Union rarely rated a mention in the states of Victoria, West Australia and in any area outside the two traditional rugby provinces. Union was not a national Australian sporting code. They had the Wallabies as their national team, but they had no premier domestic competition. Union was a game played at private schools and considered an elitist sport.

The Sanzar arrangement – of an international competition at regional and national level between South Africa, Australia and New Zealand – ensured the national promotion of union to a wider Australian audience. It also gave them a provincial-type seasonal competition that preceded a two-month international tri-series.

Australian rugby has always been the primary beneficiary of Sanzar and Super Rugby. South Africa has been the biggest loser, from week one, because Super Rugby devalued the importance of the 100-plus year prestigious domestic competition, the Currie Cup. South Africa’s travel schedule, because of logistics, was also the most demanding and the South African sides were away on tour longer than New Zealand’s and Australia’s.

Commercially, South Africa was the strongest, from a broadcasting perspective and from income generated from crowd attendance and domestic sponsorships. The rugby player was done no favours by the schedule or an administration that allowed for the playing disadvantages from the outset – and the player, through limited success, did the administration no favours.

Super Rugby and the Rugby Championship (formerly Tri-Nations) lessened South Africa’s on-field rugby standing. The Springboks regularly took a hammering and a South African side invariably finished last in the league.

The idea that player movement north has weakened the South African challenge is a myth because the reality is it has never been a powerful challenge.

New Zealand, commercially adequate, have dominated Super Rugby and the Rugby Championship. Australia, as a brand extension, went national in taking the game to all the major cities of the country.

Geographically, South Africa’s players were always going to be a distant third in comfort, schedule and time spent away from home. The statistics support the view of how tough it is to travel 12,000 miles and play four successive matches.

Super Rugby, in quality, was a standard beyond any domestic competition but the Currie Cup maintained a romance among supporters, sponsors and players, for whom there was a tradition to associate with the tournament. There were domestic rivalries that extended 100 years and there was history.

The competition is now a feeder to Super Rugby but the play-off matches still command near sellout crowds and impressive viewer ratings. And the 2014 season provided an emphatic yes from the South African local supporter that there would still be interest and support, despite all the contracted Springboks being withdrawn from the competition.

The Currie Cup, through sponsorship, tradition and loyalty from the rugby public, has survived the demotion and fans have embraced the romance of a tournament that honours history and tradition, but features tomorrow’s national stars, instead of the country’s most sought-after superstars.

South Africa, after the initial 10-year Sanzar contract, failed to accept that the agreement did not serve local rugby. Playing in France or England seemed a more logical tri-agreement.

Australian and New Zealand rugby officials needed the historic appeal of the Springboks to have broadcasting product of value. If not the Boks, then Japan, which amounted to a competition that would be the Bledisloe Cup trans-Tasman rivalry between the All Blacks and Wallabies, with the add-on of an easy beat in Japan.

South Africa’s rugby administration failed to make an interest that would serve the country’s players. Common sense and geography called for the creation of a South African-strengthened northern hemisphere elite club competition.

Traditionalists among the game’s administration insisted on the long haul to Australasia because of an amateur rivalry that betrayed the demands on professional players.

The mindset of a 100-year-old amateur administration governed in the guise of a professional sporting code. The result was to weaken the tournament’s strength versus strength concept of 12 teams across three nations by increasing the numbers to 14. Australia was the beneficiary in getting two additional teams in states that had never promoted union as a major code.

South Africa continued to struggle on the field and nothing much has changed with the tournament’s expansion to 15 teams. This number will increase to 18 teams in 2016, with Japan and Argentina the latest beneficiaries.

South Africa’s rugby problem is not because of top-class players accepting European and Japanese club offers. The national team is not affected. Those players remain eligible for Bok selection and the Springboks are competitive because the national coach, Heyneke Meyer, can select the best available players, regardless of where they play their rugby.

It makes sense for South African rugby to acknowledge the pedigree of those South African players abroad because the Springboks would be weaker if they were not available.

Again, the question of why the supposed crisis or panic within South African rugby because of the power of the euro and the commercial buying power of the richest European clubs?

South Africa’s rugby officials agree that the rand currency cannot compare to what is available to the player in Europe. The economics of South African Super Rugby is simply not the equal of European and English professional clubs. Equally, the big money paid to play in the Japanese Top League.

The professional nature of the game means more players will go, but the panic is caused because of an amateur mindset that leans on the history of a traditional game to influence public opinion and punish the best players for being an overseas club target.

The evolution of the professional game demands professional business sense in decision-making. Instead, what prevails and dominates the media coverage is a threat to refuse to select for the Boks those players good enough to be paid in euros, sterling or yen.

The rugby administrators have attempted to go back to an amateur history and the appeal of an amateur Springbok jersey as a solution to restricting the player exodus. And it gets support from an ignorant audience who view it as a betrayal of the country for any player to take the better business opportunity.

The players are seen as the villains but the villains are those South African officials who determined it a greater benefit to South African rugby for investment in a playing alliance with Australia and New Zealand than France and England. 

New Zealand and Australian rugby are the ones that rightly fear the financial pulling power of the European domestic game, with New Zealand, in particular, having managed to minimise losing their best players to European clubs.

The Kiwis have relied on the lure of the All Blacks jersey to be a bigger motivator than cash, but that worked for a generation of player whose fathers and grandfathers were about tradition and the mystique and magic of the jersey. The stranglehold is weakening, as is New Zealand’s selection policy of refusing to pick any player for the All Blacks who plays his domestic rugby offshore.

Good, young All Blacks in the past few months have taken the euro ahead of the All Blacks jersey and with each month more will take the cash gains over the possibility of playing in black.

New Zealand Rugby’s fear is that Super Rugby will weaken, but it’s inevitable. And Super Rugby with just the second-best Australian and New Zealand players, and whatever Japan and Argentina produce, isn’t worthy of being called Super. The broadcaster value will be in decline, but that is also inevitable.

Why the resistance? The game is professional and the Top 14 in France is the richest club competition that is also attracting the game’s best players.

Rugby’s professional evolution can’t be stopped, but it's being stifled through a refusal to accept that professionalism demands a different set of rules to the ones that governed rugby for a century when the game was a sport and not a business.

South Africa should be the ally of anything Europe, yet its administration has united with the plight of New Zealand and Australia. It makes no professional sense because South Africa ideally could have been a part of an elite Super Club northern hemisphere competition that would have ensured the best South African players were still on view in South Africa, even if in the colours of European clubs.

The northern hemisphere clubs are not the enemy. At least, they should not be seen as the evil in the weakening of South African rugby’s domestic product. Those clever guys, who serve as provincial presidents, were the ones who aligned with two national unions, whose tradition may be familiar with South Africa’s, but whose commercial and geographical problem with Europe is in total contrast.

Departing Sanzar chief executive Greg Peters believes the eligibility rules that allow players to head offshore but still play in the Rugby Championship are slowly killing Super Rugby, reported by the New Zealand Herald’s Gregor Paul.

Peters singled out South Africa’s selection of players for the Boks as a reason the very best don’t question the lure of the euro. He said: ‘There hasn’t been a South African winner for five years and this year all five of their teams have been mediocre at best. You can see the impact [Springbok selection criteria] has had.’

He urged South Africa to change the rules of national selection. So too Australia and he has applauded New Zealand’s stance. But he is doing so in the name of trying to do justice to a regional international tournament, whose value went from Super to So-So when 12 teams became 18.

New Zealand’s domestic rugby product is most under threat from Europe, but they’ve managed to sell it as a problem linked to South Africa’s domestic game. How?

Europe, 10 years ago, and even more so now, answers South Africa’s rugby questions and ensures a product of Super value that would include the best of Europe’s teams.

But all you hear is Europe is the problem, when the problem is with those ill-equipped minds who govern a professional sport with a tablet, more cement than digital and 100 years old, when the game requires a professional blueprint detailed 100 seconds ago. 

– This article first appeared in the July issue of Sport Monthly magazine, which is distributed to select Business Day and Sunday Times subscribers