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SA Rugby heading for an implosion

Written by Morné Nortier (Morné)

Posted in :Currie Cup, Original Content on 16 Aug 2011 at 12:30
Tagged with : , , ,

A common trend in South African rugby is the emphasis on short term gains rather than long term vision.

I know there is a Tri-Nations tournament on the go, and I also realise that there is a little event called the Rugby World Cup just over 20 days away, but I am absolutely flabbergasted that not one major media source has focussed on the recent decision by SA Rugby to reduce the Currie Cup to a six-team Premier Division and 8-team First Division structure from 2012.

I posed the question on whether people like or dislike the suggested format on a social media network last week, and even then I was shocked by the lack of interest on the subject by normal fans out there.

The only conclusion I can therefore draw from all this is that everybody agrees with the suggested format, or we don’t really care.


SA Rugby will sell the new format to the general public on the face of the Currie Cup now being contested on a strength-vs-strength basis – a model the general public have always wanted.  But is it really?

Let’s be clear, the decision to change the current format was not a proactive decision by SA Rugby to improve the state of the game in South Africa, it was a forced, reactive gesture to address the ripple-effect of a previous decision made by the governing body when they entered into the new Super Rugby agreement with SANZAR.  This is quite simply bad business – you don’t make the icing for a cake before you bake it.

The concept of a strength-vs-strength competition format suggests that you will have teams of relative equal strength and depth to compete against one another.  In that sense, the current Currie Cup competition falls in that category as the results so far suggest.  The problem is that it’s a strength-vs-strength competition which excludes the elite players of South Africa, and given the expanded Super Rugby competition and Tri-Nations competition (which will become a Four-Nations) from 2012, don’t expect this to change in a non-World Cup year.


New agreements, new competition formats or streamlining of structures should all have some sort of benefit for the game of rugby.  In a professional environment that benefit is largely financial, and SA Rugby will proudly declare the massive financial benefits they received from the new Newscorp deal, and the millions SuperSport paid for the rights to televise the Currie Cup for the next couple of years.

So where there is no doubt that the immediate financial benefit to SA Rugby might be huge, we have to consider the long term sustainability of it, or to put it differently, at what cost do, or will these deals come at in the very near future.

For SA Rugby to ensure long term sustainability of the game in South Africa they need to consider the product they are managing and selling.  The product (rugby) is almost exclusively dependent on its main resource, the players.  The players, and quality of players directly influence the product and the quality of the product.  The quality of the product has a direct influence on the value, or perceived value of the product, and this value will ultimately determine consumer (fans) buy-in.

As SA Rugby is limited as an organisation to sell this product directly to the public (apart from gate-takings at actual matches), they rely on mediums and partners such as SuperSport to buy the product from them, and in turn, sell it off to the mass-market.  Through this process, additional income streams in the form of sponsorships are also generated.

For all this to happen successfully though, organisations like SuperSport need to identify some form of value in the product they are buying or investing into, knowing they too can generate a profit in selling it off to the consumer market.

So what value (benefit), or future value has the recent agreements and structural changes created for SA Rugby?

Player Welfare

Players are rugby’s most valuable asset, and ensuring you continue to produce quality players are essential to the long-term sustainability of the game.

In a recent interview the Bulls director of rugby, Heyneke Meyer, said that the new Super Rugby format will see players careers cut short (from what it is currently) by as much as 3 to 4 years.  In other words, the shelf-life of players are going to be reduced significantly.  Even one of South Africa’s greatest players, Fourie du Preez, recently mentioned that he is happy to get away from Super Rugby as it is physical exhausting for players who cannot sustain that level or amount of rugby for such long periods (Du Preez is joining a Japanese club from 2012).

Most current Super Rugby coaches have also emphasised that the extended Super Rugby competition would require them to have much greater depth in their squads.

Considering Super Rugby is the flagship tournament or biggest money-spinner for teams and unions, these factors mentioned starts to paint a very bleak picture.

Feeder Systems & the future of the Currie Cup

It is becoming increasingly obvious that domestic competitions like the Currie Cup will in future be used to feed Super Rugby teams and create the necessary depth required.  Add the fact of players careers being shortened considerably because of extended Super Rugby and International competitions, there will even be more pressure on feeder structures to continually produce quality players at a higher frequency.

The current five Super Rugby franchises have not only relied on their immediate feeding structures (union directly associated to the franchise) to supplement their player numbers, but a simple study on current Super Rugby (and even Springbok) players will quite clearly illustrate that they also depend on unions and resources outside of their immediate structures – the so-called minnow unions.

It is not a secret that most, if not all minnow unions in South Africa only exist because of hand-out’s, and that they cannot currently sustain themselves financially – a fact that will be even more exposed with a reduced Premier Currie Cup Division format from which most of these unions are desperately reliant on for money or revenue streams.

It is easy to suggest that the top 5 or 6 unions or franchises in South Africa will in future simply increase the number of contracted players within their ranks, but given the fact that 80% of these top unions budgets are spent on elite players, there is not much room or money to contract up-and-coming players.

You also sit with a situation that unions, even the top ones, are limited in numbers to contract players.  Any rugby team can only have 22 players, which in turn will limit the amount of players you can have as back-up or squad players.

The end result of this is that the top 5 or 6 unions in South Africa will become top heavy, limited to contracting a fixed amount of players which will leave a large number of players out in the wilderness or with no real rugby future in South Africa.  Without money or exposure even more minnow unions will not be able to develop and produce up-and-coming stars and eventually the feeding structures, outside that of the top 5 unions will collapse completely.

We are already seeing a significant drop in school and club rugby players in South Africa, and if clubs and schools in outlying or rural areas lose the structures and systems in place and managed by these minnow unions, the reduction of player numbers in South Africa will drop drastically in a very short space and time.


South African rugby might be riding the wave of financial success with recent deals it entered into, but I believe there was little to no regard shown for the future sustainability of the game through these commitments.  You cannot strengthen the end-product (Super Rugby and Springbok rugby) by cutting off the resources that feed them – you strengthen those resources first to ensure the end product will continue to remain strong.

I cannot see any benefit in the recent changes we have witnessed in South African rugby other than a short-term, and short-sighted, financial benefit.  For this reason, and unless something changes dramatically, South African rugby faces a massive implosion in the not too distant future.


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