• Year in review: Change of direction

    South African rugby is moving in a different direction and there is no turning back, writes CRAIG LEWIS in the latest SA Rugby magazine.

    ‘If anyone thinks rugby, and particularly international and domestic action, will return to anything that’s close to the format that existed at the start of 2020, you’d be making a big mistake!’

    These were the words of SA Rugby CEO Jurie Roux in the middle of 2020. A year that has seen the local and global game shaken to its core, and driven in a new direction in the wake of a pandemic that has irrevocably changed the rugby landscape.

    ‘We’ve been tightening our belts for a number of years already and if it wasn’t for that, we would probably have been in a much worse situation when the pandemic hit,’ Roux tells SA Rugby magazine.

    ‘We’ve been privileged to work with a great broadcast sponsor and other partners in the past decade, so relationships are obviously very important, but the biggest lesson we’ve probably not so much learned, as had underlined, is that we are in the content business – and our content is rugby – and if we don’t have that we don’t have a business.

    ‘So making sure it is the right content to appeal to our fans, broadcasters and sponsors is the No 1 commercial priority for us. Looking ahead, I can’t wait to see a packed stadium sing the national anthem before a Bok Test again, or the party vibe at the Cape Town Sevens, and while we’re working hard to achieve that, it’s not up to us when it will happen.’

    Indeed, if nothing else, a year of extraordinary circumstances exposed some hard truths, and required some flexible manoeuvring to overcome a series of obstacles that threatened to derail a SA rugby machine that was very much cruising on an upward trajectory after widespread success in 2019.

    Even when the game ground to a halt in March, a South African side, the Sharks, were sitting pretty at the top of the overall Super Rugby standings, while the Springboks’ planning was well under way to build a dynasty of success from the foundations of historic Rugby Championship and World Cup triumphs. Yet, after those highs, the reset button has been pushed in South Africa and throughout world rugby.

    In this context, we take a look at the year in review, while also casting an eye to a brave new dawn that’s on the horizon.

    VIEW FROM THE TOP

    It’s not an exaggeration to suggest the past year has necessitated a period of intense introspection like never before. For months on end, the only certainty was uncertainty as the goalposts were regularly shifted as return-to-play dates were adjusted in accordance with the progression of the pandemic.

    And as time passed, so it became clear that Super Rugby – as we once knew it – was now a thing of the past. The Springboks’ decision to withdraw from the Rugby Championship was another clear indication that SA Rugby was done pandering to the whims of others. The past year required widespread reprioritisation to ensure sustainability and stability.

    ‘As an industry, we had to cut between R700 million to R1 billion from our budgets to ensure the post-Covid-19 viability of the sport and we established the Industry Financial Impact Plan (IFIP),’ Roux explains.

    ‘It was encouraging to see all the major stakeholders in the game, including the unions, players, our broadcaster and sponsors, join hands and work together to help overcome the effects of the pandemic, but we’re not out of the woods yet.’

    As necessitated by the pandemic, and due to decisions such as those made by New Zealand Rugby to move forward with a new competition that excluded South Africa, there was a need for the SA rugby industry to plot its own pathway forward.

    And that pathway leads north.

    BEST OF BOTH WORLDS

    In September, a statement shed further light on one of the worst-kept secrets in South African rugby when it was confirmed that the Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers had been put forward to play in an expanded Pro16 competition.

    ‘We had invested in the potential of a northern alignment by placing two teams in Pro Rugby but the shift of the Super teams was something that was triggered by decisions taken elsewhere,’ Roux reveals.

    ‘Having said that, from a player welfare and high performance perspective there are clear benefits form playing in the same time zone as well as budgetary savings from an operational perspective … It opens a whole range of other conversations with broadcasters and commercial partners.’

    Make no mistake, this is a calculated, long-term move aimed at tapping into new commercial opportunities, realigning travel demands and broadcasting times to a more favourable schedule, while moving away from the old, stale Super Rugby product and into a bright new avenue. This is about being in the content business, and this is the content SA Rugby is willing to bet on.

    Before the announcement became official, but at a time when the potential move north was already well known in the corridors of SA Rugby’s headquarters, South Africa’s director of rugby Rassie Erasmus detailed the benefits.

    ‘Firstly, for fans it’s excellent because they can watch games in the same time zone. Matches will mostly be played Saturday afternoons and evenings. They can have a braai, have some drinks and enjoy the game with mates.

    ‘For players and coaches, the travel factor is massive. We could get on a plane, fly overnight and theoretically play that same day. From a player welfare perspective, it’s much better. The flights are regular and the time zones are easy.

    ‘You will play against teams from countries which are usually ranked in the top five in the world. Ireland and Wales are always there and Scotland also never fall lower than sixth or seventh. If you look at the southern hemisphere competition, Argentina are ranked 10th in the world and Australia seventh currently. Lastly, the style of rugby in the Pro14 is similar to Test matches.’

    By dipping the Bulls, Sharks, Lions and Stormers into the Pro14 waters, there is a hope that this will ultimately pave the way into elite European club competitions. There are also more than just whispers that this is a stepping stone for the Springboks to join an expanded Six Nations competition after the next World Cup.

    Back in November, SA Rugby welcomed the announcement by Sanzaar that all four joint-venture members would continue to participate in a restructured Rugby Championship in 2021 and beyond, but also hinted ‘possible international expansion is on the cards’.

    ‘It’s the best of both worlds,’ says Jake White, the former Bok coach and now Bulls director of rugby. ‘We’re playing our franchise rugby north and will still be competing against the All Blacks regularly. Despite all the changes from the past few months, we should never doubt the value we derived from playing in the south.

    ‘Playing against Australasian teams at Super Rugby and international level proved to be an asset to our rugby. We’ve won two World Cups during the Super Rugby era, so it certainly suggests that it was an alliance that worked.

    ‘Moving north is good from a mental perspective, though, because the players can spend a bit more time at home with their families due to the competition structure and time zone.

    ‘It’s a different part of the world and perhaps a different challenge for us too. But you’re still going to have our best players competing against the best in the world in the All Blacks. It really can’t be a bad thing when you keep that in mind.’

    EYES ON THE LIONS PRIZE

    When the Springboks’ withdrawal from the 2020 Rugby Championship was confirmed, South Africa’s Super Rugby Unlocked competition was well under way, and the national coaches didn’t miss a beat in switching focus.

    ‘As soon as our trip to the Rugby Championship was called off it actioned a lot of stuff: “OK, you do this, you do that, let’s go,”’ Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘All our focus is now on the British & Irish Lions tour. We are up and running.’

    Part of the preparation has seen the Springbok coaches constantly travelling around the country to spend time with the franchises, while keeping an eye on the various players of national interest.

    By all accounts, one of the byproducts that has come out of this pandemic-disrupted year has been the heightened communication and collaboration between SA Rugby and the franchises. In a time of crisis, there has been little option but for all parties to work together in search of solutions for the greater good of the game’s survival.

    There have been some casualties along the way – none more so than the Kings, and to some degree the Cheetahs – but seriously difficult decisions have had to be made in order to negotiate these unprecedented times.

    ‘It was remarkable to see everyone come together and put together a plan to ensure the sustainability of the game for the coming years during a time where almost everyone took heavy hits due to the pandemic,’ Roux states.

    Some more nifty problem-solving is now required when it comes to finding the means for the Springboks to be suitably prepared for the arrival of the British & Irish Lions next year, but Roux says they are looking to ‘secure as many as four pre-tour fixtures for the Boks’.

    This is now the big carrot at the end of the stick, and with the focus remaining firmly on a full-strength local competition, the Springbok coaches will have been thrilled to see the emergence of youngsters such as Stedman Gans, Phepsi Buthelezi, Yaw Penxe and Rikus Pretorius to name just a few.

    Then there’s been the renewed form of the likes of Marco van Staden, Curwin Bosch, Warrick Gelant, Ivan van Zyl, and even a throwback to the good old days from someone like Morne Steyn and Willem Alberts.

    Overseas, there have been a few worrying injuries to top players, but the likes of Lood de Jager, Handre Pollard and RG Snyman should all be fit for the Lions series. Assistant coach Felix Jones remains based abroad to serve as the go-between for all parties.

    The Springboks’ coaching staff has remained largely intact from the World Cup group, while only Beast Mtawarira, Schalk Brits and Francois Louw have headed into retirement. And if one takes a look at the original 31-man World Cup squad that was selected – excluding the recent retirees – the average age of the players is a very healthy 28.

    ‘Rassie and the rugby department have been hard at work to ensure the Boks are not undercooked by the time Warren Gatland and the British & Irish Lions arrive here,’ Roux insists. ‘And if there is one thing Rassie is good with, it’s planning.’

    READ: What’s in our latest issue?

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    Craig Lewis