SA rugby’s ‘transfer day’ has arrived at the end of a contentious three-week exit window, but will there be any takers? CRAIG LEWIS unpacks the question after a testing time in South African rugby.
The hopes for a limited lockdown and speedy return to on-field action have quickly faded in South Africa as the country has continued to tackle the immense challenge of curbing the coronavirus.
As pointed out by Stormers coach John Dobson on Tuesday, South Africa is still far behind the progress of fellow Sanzaar nations New Zealand and Australia, who are set to resume a domestic form of Vodacom Super Rugby within the next couple of months.
The reality is that South African players will now require an extended ‘full pre-season’ to be properly conditioned before any return to action can be safely considered. All the while, plenty of the behind-the-scenes planning has been undertaken with a worst-case scenario in mind of no rugby taking place this year, which would be a frightening and devastating prospect for the financial sustainability of the industry.
As one of the terms in an extensive joint-rescue plan to tackle the Covid-19 crisis, an industry collective agreement on salary reductions included a unique 21-day window allowing for players to cancel their current contracts with immediate effect.
And as highlighted from the perspective of MyPlayers CEO Eugene Henning in an exclusive interview with SARugbymag.co.za, the escape clause had to be viewed in the context of the SA rugby industry’s greatest priority, which was to reduce costs.
The termination window ran from 24 April to 14 May and is an element of the overall industry agreement believed to have been first proposed during meetings with the player agents.
However, it has also led to some unhappiness at franchise level, with members of the upper hierarchy at more than one SA franchise raising concerns about the legitimacy and reasoning behind such a clause, which is unique to the SA rugby industry.
In particular, World Rugby Player of the Year Pieter-Steph du Toit has been at the centre of many reports ever since talk emerged that he was being targeted by more than one overseas club, with French giants Montpellier reported to be particularly interested in tabling a massive offer.
Other offers are also believed to have come in for the Sharks’ World Cup-winning stars Makazole Mapimpi and Lukhanyo Am, while others, such as Curwin Bosch and even young JJ van der Mescht, have been linked with overseas interest.
There are sure to be others who are sought after in the highly-regarded SA rugby player pool, but a stipulation of the 21-day clause is that the franchises cannot engage in counter-offers or financial negotiations to tempt the player to stay.
The industry rescue plan is an ‘all-in’ agreement, and with salary reductions coming into effect from May, no player can be seen to be benefiting while others take pay cuts.
At the Stormers, Dobson expressed confidence that there wouldn’t be any surprise departures, and while there are some considerable reservations about the clause, he also highlighted an unquantifiable factor to hopefully retain players.
‘If someone was to phone us up and exercise the exit clause on the 13th at the last minute [without saying anything before that], he’d be making a massive breach of the rugby trust and squad spirit we’ve built up. He really wouldn’t be leaving with his reputation intact if someone was to take us right to the wire and then leave without even having a conversation about his future at the union and so on.
‘Rugby is meant to be about fair play and fraternity, anybody feasting on the carcasses of others trying to adapt to the impact of the coronavirus would be nothing short of exploitation,’ Dobson added.
It highlights an element of ‘money talks’ versus ‘loyalty’ to a currently existing contract and a rugby brotherhood.
Sharks CEO Eduard Coetzee has highlighted a similar sentiment, suggesting that with players having made such a successful start to the 2020 season in a far more cohesive and happy environment at the Durban franchise, there were hopes this would all factor into player decision-making.
It ultimately remains to be seen whether such prospects and a culture of goodwill could really factor into players’ decision-making, particularly when there may be the option of cashing in during a time when financial and job insecurity must be a real fear.
The waters have been further muddied by the fact that overseas clubs have also been enforcing various levels of pay cuts, and it would be seen by many as extremely bad practice to be targeting SA players by flashing the cash at this time of uncertainty and when the strength of the rand has plummeted.
It’s an unprecedented time. The landscape of rugby has changed forever, and now it remains to be seen whether any high-profile stars who strengthen the local game may join the masses playing abroad.