South African rugby’s new contracting model is bound to ask questions that will be answered only by out-of-the-box thinking, writes SIMNIKIWE XABANISA.
The introduction of a R60-million salary cap for seniors and a R10m ration for juniors at franchises should conspire to lose them their top-end senior players and entry-level youngsters, which – if we work on the old youth and experience template – will mess with the lifeblood of any team.
With pay cuts looming for the top Springboks at franchises, they’ll seek greener pastures in Europe or Japan, while the cost cutting at junior rugby means only the obviously gifted players will be contracted – the rest of the good schoolboy players will have to work their way into the system through the relative backwaters of Varsity Cup and club rugby.
That’s the forecast at the moment anyway, but the suspicion is the players in between those senior Boks and juniors will also be popular targets for overseas clubs, what with SA Rugby’s director of rugby Rassie Erasmus aiming to compel these clubs to comply with World Rugby’s availability rules during international window periods.
Long story short, an awful lot of players will be leaving the system, which should result in a juniorised rugby landscape expected to compete against relative national teams like the Jaguares in Super Rugby.
This is where overseas club returnees like former Springboks Morne Steyn, JP Pietersen and Ruan Pienaar, will be important test cases.
The 35-year-old Steyn has signed a two-year deal with the Blue Bulls; Pietersen, 33, will rejoin the Sharks for one last year and Pienaar (also 35) could be headed to the Cheetahs after his premature departure from Montpellier due to personal reasons.
‘Intellectual property’ has been a buzzword since Erasmus’ return from Ireland, and there’s no doubt Steyn (66 Bok caps), Pietersen (70) and Pienaar (88) would bring loads of that to their prospective sides.
A great example of how this can work has been at the Bulls, with Schalk Brits and Duane Vermeulen, even though they’ve gone about it differently: Brits all charm and intellect and Vermeulen bashing the door down for others to follow.
As great as this potentially is, there are always a few questions. Can the senior players still deliver on the field? What do you do with the younger players whose path they will effectively be blocking? And will these senior players have the humility to impart their IP from the sidelines like Brits has done at Bok level?
If previous World Cups and the recent Cricket World Cup are anything to go by, South Africa loves putting its faith in the experienced-player basket, and each time there’s a rude awakening that you still need legs for your experience to influence games.
Steyn’s arrival at the Bulls poses the question of whether it’s fair for flyhalf Manie Libbok’s three-year apprenticeship behind the departing Handre Pollard to be extended by two more years.
And while the 38-year-old Brits’ IP experiment has worked a treat largely because of his EQ, this is the exception, not the rule. Not every player is big enough to stand aside for the youngster they’re helping develop.
The situation South African rugby finds itself in is a tricky one where older players with IP will be desperately needed, but at the same time the young players need to develop a heck of a lot quicker than they normally would.
It’s a delicate situation where, for once, SA rugby will have to think out of the box to remain competitive, and striking some kind of balance between the two will determine whether they can adequately grapple with that challenge.
*XABANISA IS A FREELANCE SPORTS WRITER AND THE 2017 SAB SPORTS COLUMNIST OF THE YEAR. FOLLOW HIM ON TIWTTER @SIMXABANISA.