Planning is underway to rebound from a pandemic that has changed the game as we know it, writes CRAIG LEWIS in the latest SA Rugby magazine.
As far as SA rugby bombshells go, they don’t get much bigger than the one that was dropped on 21 April. For the most part, the South African governing body has remained rather tight-lipped about the full impact of the coronavirus as an ever-changing situation has been assessed on a day-to-day basis.
Yet, late one Friday afternoon, a statement was released to media outlets: ‘The rugby industry has agreed in principle a wide-ranging plan to cut between R700-million to R1-billion from its budget over the next eight months to ensure the post-Covid-19 viability of the sport through an Industry Financial Impact Plan (IFIP). The economies will be achieved by reduced expenditure caused by the cancellation of competitions, cuts in other operational budgets and in salary reductions.’
Such an announcement was not unexpected at a time when rugby and sports bodies across the globe had announced cutbacks and salary adjustments. Yet it would have reverberated around the South African rugby fraternity, to administrators and players, and beyond.
‘Many businesses find themselves in a fight for survival and rugby is no different,’ said SA Rugby CEO Jurie Roux. ‘We face an extremely threatening crisis and we had to take united and decisive action to address it head on.’
And then came the kicker: ‘This Industry Financial Impact Plan has been formulated against a worst-case scenario where we are not able to resume play for the rest of the year.’
It was a worrying sign of the times as live action and its associated financial benefits faded away. Globally, the game found itself swimming against a Covid-19 tide that showed little sign of slowing down, with no lifesavers in sight.
For SA Rugby it was a particularly cruel setback. Just last November the Springboks and South African rugby as a whole was on top of the world after Rassie Erasmus’ team crushed England in the Rugby World Cup final. Rarely had interest in the Boks been higher, and the 2020 home Tests promised to be played in front of packed stadiums, while the highly-anticipated 2021 British & Irish Lions tour was another blockbuster event just on the horizon.
The Springboks’ 2019 success – not to mention the fact the Sharks also led the Super Rugby standings when the competition was suspended – had followed on from SA Rugby’s decision to overhaul its contracting model last year. Aimed at streamlining South Africa’s player pool and consolidating expenditure, it was a considerable step towards financial sustainability.
Yet, after the highs of last year, no one could have foreseen how dramatically the rugby landscape would change in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Due to the unprecedented circumstances, Roux tells SA Rugby magazine there was little option but to plan as proactively as possible even in the face of a ‘worst-case scenario’.
‘There was broad agreement that we had to take united action and it had to focus on a worst-case scenario line of thinking. The difficulty was in concluding the contractual and approval processes as there were so many contracting entities and stakeholders involved across the whole of the rugby industry.
‘We are constantly talking about sustainability and financial models and there is no doubt that this crisis has raised local and international questions about calendars. The time for a review will come when we know what shape the sport is in once we are the other side of this crisis.’
For the players, it was also an understandably uncertain time as ever-changing return-to-play plans and discussions around pay cuts took place. In addition to this, Stormers coach John Dobson conceded that fitness and conditioning would become a concern the longer players remained inactive.
‘They know they are going backwards physically from a rugby-conditioning point of view,’ he told SA Rugby magazine. ‘So the stress levels are understandably a bit high, and I think they’d just be grateful to get back on to the field because I think it would provide an element of job security …’
In mid-April, some rumours filtered through to suggest SA Rugby was hoping for a return to on-field action in early June with a restructured domestic competition, but such hopes quickly faded as South African remained in a stringent lockdown.
At the beginning of May, Blue Bulls Rugby Union president Willem Strauss hinted that a more likely possibility could be a restructured domestic competition, starting in September – which would in all likelihood have to be played behind closed doors and with strict health and safety testing.
‘A doomsday scenario of no rugby this year would have a catastrophic affect on everyone involved,’ he told SA Rugby magazine. ‘What’s really important is that we buy into solutions as a the collective. There is going to be a massive financial impact, but it’s not just about the Bulls or any one union; there’s also the amateur and youth side of the game that also has to be looked after.
‘For a start, being a professional rugby player is already an insecure job, and this is a particularly uncertain time,’ Strauss added. ‘But as collective all the role-players have accepted that if they want to save the industry, then we’ll need to sacrifice. That applies to everyone, from players to administrators and everyone in between.’
That became evident towards the end of April when it emerged that plans were well underway for players to accept a range of sliding scale pay cuts [see sidebar], which would ultimately see the professional player group contributing 12.5% to the proposed total R1-billion in industry budget cuts if no rugby is played this year.
MyPlayers, the trade union representing South Africa’s professional players, had engaged in negotiations for several weeks, with salary reductions taking place across the board, while there was an offer of relief on pension fund contributions.
As part of the unique engagements, an extraordinary 21-day escape clause in the collective bargaining agreement had been introduced, allowing for players to opt out of their current contracts and to seek alternative (read ‘overseas’) employment should they wish.
It understandably led to some nervous employers as over 700 professional players could exercise the option to pack up and leave. The 21-day termination window ran from 24 April to 14 May and quickly sparked rumours of an increase in enquiries from overseas clubs looking to cash in on ‘poaching’ some of SA rugby’s high-profile stars.
All that aside, in these uncertain times, Roux praised MyPlayers for the extensive work undertaken and insisted SA Rugby had to maintain a practical outlook on the lure of the overseas markets.
‘MyPlayers were a critical partner in this process and deserve a lot of credit for the mature and engaged way they addressed the challenge along with the employers, in contrast to some overseas organisations – who’ve ended up with the same outcome but by a more combative route … The market has the power to decide [whether players stay or leave] and our job is to manage the resources as and where we need them, and where we find them.’
Of course, the ripple effect of the coronavirus pandemic also filtered through all levels of the game, which became particularly evident when SA Rugby announced that a host of youth and age-group competitions would be cancelled this year, including the 2020 Craven Week.
‘It is the last thing we wanted to do but this was an exceptional time,’ Roux says. ‘We have a highly developed Elite Player Development system however, and they have continued to do their work and have a very good grasp of what is happening at the youth level. The tragedy is at a personal level and I feel for those young players who have lost the opportunity forever of attending an event such as Craven Week.’
The game as we know it has changed. Now more than ever, though, a reminder has been served about the importance of the industry remaining united in the face of adversity and finding solutions in times of hopelessness.
‘From our side, we are really working so hard, and I want to guarantee our supporters, as soon as the Springboks are back on the field, we will make you proud, like we did last year,’ SA director of rugby Rassie Erasmus insisted. ’We really are stronger together and nothing should change because of this virus.’
*This feature appeared in the latest issue of SA Rugby magazine, now on sale.