The salary cap hurts South African rugby more than it helps which is why national director of rugby Rassie Erasmus must do away with it, according to ZELIM NEL.
Erasmus is a rugby pioneer usually two steps ahead of the curve, and the announcement in 2019 of a system to control the distribution of rugby talent in South Africa was a characteristically smart idea and one with merit.
The long-standing issue of bigger unions stockpiling surplus talent came to a head as some of the Super Rugby unions boasted obscene depth in multiple positions while minnow teams were forced to start players, some of whom were not worth their professional contracts.
SA Rugby’s shift from the southern-hemisphere regional competition to Europe and the Vodacom United Rugby Championship offered an opportunity to reset, and the initiative to restrict the buying power of the bigger teams guaranteed that there would be a semblance of parity in the Currie Cup where the URC contenders would have to field their second stringers.
As far as this objective is concerned, the squad restrictions have arguably achieved their objective. In January, the Cheetahs beat the Bulls in Pretoria, Griquas came within two points of ambushing the Sharks at Kings Park and the Pumas thrashed the Lions at Ellis Park.
However, the disappointing debut of SA teams on northern fields last year suggests that creating competition balance in the Currie Cup will come at great cost to the game on these shores, in both the URC and, in the long term, to the success of the Springboks beyond the next Rugby World Cup.
Money is one thing rugby in this country could use in far more abundance and, at a time when unions are finally taking their first steps into privatisation, the salary cap has effectively handcuffed the very benefactors on whose shoulders the sustainability of the game in SA rests.
If Johann Rupert and Patrice Motsepe, the billionaires who together own 74% of the Bulls, woke up this morning with a sudden urge to spend a small percentage of their combined wealth on making Loftus Versfeld the home of the richest squad in the world, they’d be disappointed to find out they’re not allowed to.
Similarly, Marco Masotti – who heads up the consortium that owns a controlling share of the Sharks – cannot compete with overseas clubs for some of SA’s best players, even though he has the financial resources to do so.
The reason for this is South Africa’s four URC franchises are restricted by a R65-million cap on a squad that cannot exceed 50 players – this translates into an average of R1.3m per player, which is peanuts in the context of Stormers fullback Warrick Gelant having been offered almost R8m per year to join Top 14 contenders Racing 92 in Paris.
Given that the restriction on squad size goes a long way to achieving the goal of ensuring there is sufficient talent to create a Currie Cup competition that can be legitimately contested by all seven teams, the salary cap becomes a very expensive and unnecessary control mechanism in the greater scheme of things.
Much of the positive sentiment about rugby in the Republic is tied to the Springboks’ status as world champions and conquerors of the British & Irish Lions. Long may that continue!
But no team has won three successive world titles and it’s reasonable to expect the Boks will hit a rough patch sooner or later. At that point, the success of SA teams in the United Rugby Championship will determine whether local interest remains captivated – along with the related revenue streams – and that is highly unlikely if the Bulls and Sharks are in the bottom third of the standings because they’re sending R1.3m talent up against the Gelants of this world.
Eliminating the salary cap will unshackle the likes of Rupert, Motsepe and Masotti to open the war chest and fortify their match-day squads with Test-calibre players. Just imagine how much the Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers would be upgraded with the return of Malcolm Marx, Joseph Dweba, Wilco Louw, Franco Mostert, Dan and Jean-Luc du Preez and Cobus Reinach.
This would directly benefit the Boks when they reload for the 2027 World Cup because it has the potential to concentrate many of South Africa’s best players (currently scattered from Dublin to Tokyo) into the country’s four URC franchises where there is less exposure to club-versus-country issues.
And successful URC teams make SA Rugby a far more stable and attractive proposition to commercial partners, which could spark a constructive arms race between the patrons of the smaller unions in the lower echelons of the domestic game.
C’mon Ras, what do you say – let’s scrap the cap and go f**k them up in the URC!