Second Phase

Open letter to SARU

Thu, 11 Jul 2013 14:50
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'Fixing' SA rugby
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rugby365 reader Thys Kotzé gives us his views on how to cure the ills in South African rugby.

It's time that the South African Rugby Union grows a backbone and make stronger and more beneficial decisions regarding the future of the game in SA as well as internationally.

I'm not touting transformation or some specific agenda but it is obvious changes are drastically needed in how the game is run and played.

First and foremost I say this as a rugby lover, knowing that South Africa has a proud heritage and influence in how game has evolved. Of course money plays a vital role and always will since the sport is professional in SA but changes need to be made. I will offer some observations and outline some ideas that I think could perhaps be implemented.  

Scheduling

As a fan one wonders and argues whether the amount of rugby played could ever be enough.

Based on the last few years, perhaps the answer is yes, there is such a thing as too much. Especially if tournaments aren't scheduled in a way to really build, grab and keep attention.

It is time that SARU campaigned for a schedule in the following order, Currie Cup, International Home Tests, Super Rugby/Eurozone Cup, Rugby Championship, then again International Tour Tests.  

This can be a benefit to the Southern Hemisphere in that rugby, players and teams gradually build up towards the Rugby Championship and then finally the End of Year Tour. Attrition will be a huge factor and fatigue can and probably will be a factor towards the end, yet the teams will be like a well-oiled machine by then.

The 'top' players can then get a prolonged break as the Currie Cup gets underway at the beginning of the year to give the incumbents and promising youngsters game time and exposure. The added benefit might be that it also keeps the 'top' players hungry and on their toes if some of the other players mount a serious challenge in form.

Currie Cup

Considering that there is always the ever present call for transformation from the Government, those with specific political agendas (or should that perhaps read financial), and some from the public, perhaps the Currie Cup needs a slight adjustment. I'm all for the development and the spread of Rugby, not just in South Africa but internationally as well because I love the game more than a specific team or brand. However, I'm dead set against transformation just for the sake of it and because certain people or groups want to make a political statement.

A few years ago the Currie Cup format went back to the strength versus strength format, meaning the top 6 unions competing in a league for the actual Cup and the rest competing in a lower league for a chance at a play-off. There were several reasons for this, and although I'm no expert, I will highlight a few of the reasons without lingering too much on the obvious.

The strength verses strength Currie Cup format is more appealing to the fans. Although 2012 game attendance was down compared to the 2011, TV viewership was up remarkably*.   

Besides sponsorship, broadcasting rights provide the bulk of money to the game. Games against smaller unions don't attract the same level of enthusiasm and thus people will be more selective in which games they watch. There's already too much rugby in a calendar season and going back to a more elongated version will not be beneficial, both to the players and the fans.

Unfortunately with the conference system such as in Super Rugby we have the side-effect that the (from 2013 the majority of) stronger unions already face each other twice in a season.  And if we are honest (there are those in denial) it takes away from that classic derbies of the Currie Cup since Super Rugby is viewed as a higher calibre competition.

So how do we approach this without diluting the Currie Cup competition?

Scheduling is a part of the problem (see 'Scheduling'). By having the Currie Cup before SR fans will be hungry and eager to attend or tune in after the summer break. Varsity rugby can also be run during this time and then Club rugby can be run during SR, or vice versa. Doing away with the Vodacom Cup would hopefully energize club rugby with the necessary impetus. Changing the number of teams playing in the Premier League from 6 to 7 or even 8 would also add a bit more diversity, representation and exposure (to more players) to the Currie Cup without diluting the appeal to the fans. The current 6 teams are Blue Bulls, Cheetahs, Griquas, Lions, Sharks and Western Province.

If SARU just used some logic they would have expanded the Currie Cup by 1 team to include the Kings instead of having the political (and financial) farce of including them in Super Rugby (see 'International Club Rugby') without the Kings being able to even make the Currie Cup merit (The Kings should be commended though for their spirited performance in this year's Super Rugby).

You could potentially include another team but those teams would probably suit the overall system better by remaining feeder teams to the other 7.

On a side note, I think Eastern Province should rather have built on their heritage and used the Elephants as their mascot than bumbling about with other emblems and names.

On a side note, I have to say I'm also slightly surprised that no provincial team (that I'm aware of) has ever adopted the Kudu as a mascot. What a powerfully magnificent and graceful beast.

International Club Rugby

Perhaps thinking and approaching international club competitions differently, will be the most beneficial to South African rugby going forward, not only quality wise but also financially. I propose that SARU engage in discussions to have 6 provincial teams compete internationally BUT not all in the same competition. Three or 4 teams compete in a smaller SANZAR tournament and then 2 or Three teams in a Eurozone tournament.

There are several benefits to a system like this. Not only will we gain experience of different traveling conditions and countries but the financial gain playing in Europe will also benefit SA Rugby. It's a common assumption (perhaps debatable) that South Africa is the largest contributor financially to SANZAR and yet probably has to share it evenly with the other partners without having an equal say. This way SARU can strengthen its position without being too exposed or dependable on other partners.

We all like to believe teams want the ultimate challenge but, as is commonly proven by players heading oversees, money will always be a factor. Thus it can be argued teams would want to play in the most rewarding tournament. A SANZAR tournament might be deemed the most challenging and prestigious but if a team can earn a lot more money playing in a more financially rewarding tournament, the chances are they will.

Unless SARU decides to employ a central contracting system similar to New Zealand (which has it pros and cons), this can be addressed in 2 possible ways:
1. The best and easiest option is probably to pre-determine which teams will play in what tournament regardless of their supposed ranking in South Africa. This would potentially be the better option considering broadcasting deals etc. It would of course be beneficial to have a spread of northern and southern teams in both tournaments. To make it financially 'fair' all the money earned from both tournaments is put into the same pot and then each team is rewarded according to achievement. This achievement can either be the final ranking of each tournament or where the teams end up in the Currie Cup (either the previous or next), once again elevating the importance of the Currie Cup.  
2. The second option is actually a myriad of different combinations. Teams' ranking in the Currie Cup determines which tournament they compete in the following year. It can either be pre-determined, meaning number 1, Three and 5 competes in tournament A etc. but this opens the door for 'fixing' should certain teams prefer a certain tournament.

Or to put a different spin on ranking in the CURRIE CUP, teams can decide where they want to play starting with the winner. If the ranking option is a consideration then this could give further impetus to perform well in the Currie Cup and also bring a new relevancy to it. Thus if you have 7 or 8 teams in the Currie Cup the top 6 will qualify.

Three. The different tournaments (or broadcasters) could also bid (IPL style) which teams it would like in their tournaments to further increase revenue.

Clearly there is a lot of possibilities, either complicated or more straightforward, to bring a new dimension and experience to 'super' rugby in South Africa with the added financial benefit.

Let's consider each tournament and its possibilities next.

Super Rugby

Most fans will either tell you they preferred Super 12 and some even Super 14 to the new Super Rugby format.

Considering this SARU can again enter Three or 4 teams and negotiate for a smaller tournament where NZ and AUS also enter Three or 4 teams. Depending on the amount of teams Argentina can also enter a team or two as well as a Pacific Island or Japanese Team that is based somewhere in Australia or NZ.

SARU can claim they are promoting and expanding the game by including Argentina (Japan and PI) even further.

Super 14 and Super Rugby probably made the tournament a bit easier on SA teams as it required a fairer amount of traveling by the AUS and NZ teams. During Super 12 South Africa was impacted more severely by the longer tours compared to their SANZAR rivals.

Of course if SA teams can come to grips and learn how to deal with touring better, it can ultimately be turned into an advantage for the Springboks. Thus far, for the most part, it has had just the opposite effect as players 'fear' traveling. The last few seasons
it seems that all SA teams started to travel better.

Examples:
Super 12: SA x Three, NZ x 4, AUS x 4, Argentina x 1
Super 14: SA x 4, NZ x 4, AUS x 4, Argentina x 2
Super 14: SA x Three, NZ x 5, AUS x 5, Argentina x 1 (If NZ and AUS both demand 5 teams each)

Eurozone Rugby

SARU can propose a new tournament including France and England and/or perhaps some of the other UK based or European countries.

This tournament will give SA Rugby access to Euros and pounds.

This tournament has so many possibilities and SARU should start by courting France and England. A club championship including SA and France could be a real success and potentially help both nations develop their styles of play going ahead. Including England will of course broaden the support base and the financial pool. SARU could potentially make Springbok selections a lot easier as well by granting leeway or permission to players not playing for a South African franchise but playing in this tournament.

Examples:
SA x Three, France x Three, England x Three, Italy x 2
SA x 2, France x 2, England x 2, Ireland x 2, Italy x 2, Wales x 2, Scotland x 2

This tournament could be an evolution of the current European Cup but this will only keep the status quo in terms of the top nations in the world. SARU could even suggest a more creative approach, especially to garner IRB support and development funds.
For example, SARU could negotiate for the inclusion of lower tier National teams like Georgia, Romania, and Russia etc. to compete as nations in this tournament. They can potentially argue that this will spread the game further and almost 'demand' that the IRB provide the necessary funds for these Nations.  

A possible competition could have about 14 teams:
SA x Three, France x Three, England x 3, Italy x 2, Russia, Georgia, Ukraine
or
SA x 2, France x 2, England x 2, Italy x 2, Ireland x 2, Wales x 1, Scotland x 1, Russia, Georgia, Ukraine

A possibly side effect of Wales and Scotland having only one team could potentially be that they effectively field their 'national' sides. Hopefully this will be negated by still running the Heineken Cup alongside this.

There's a lot of potential as until recently there was (or is) a dispute about the format of the Heineken Cup, especially from England and to a lesser extent France. It's thus ideal timing for SARU (and/or the Lions).

South Africa is in the unique position that it's in the Southern Hemisphere and also falls within the European time zone, thus it's perfectly situated, possibly more than any other rugby nation to attempt and pursue a course like this. If this is implemented wisely SA Rugby can benefit a lot in the long term financially and in pure rugby terms (players, experience, and exposure).
 
Contracting

A lot have been said about the state of SA Rugby compared to NZ, especially on rugby forums*. Many people believe that South Africa has gone down the wrong route during the professional era by allowing teams (provincial unions) to contract players directly compared to the NZRU who decided on a central contracting system, both for players and coaches.

The advantage of the NZRU system has clearly been seen in how well NZ has done in SANZAR competitions. NZ's record in the modern era is unparalleled. SA and AUS have competed well at times but cannot really claim equal footing on a consistent basis.

Although it might seem attractive to many to call for a similar contracting system, it's important to consider all the factors and how feasible they really are.
* The biggest two factors of these are the financial implications and the government's involvement. NZ Rugby has been running at a loss for years and only keeps afloat through government support because rugby, especially the All Blacks, is seen as the heritage and property of the NZ people. SA on the other hand hasn't enjoyed the same level of government support, in fact and more often than not the government influence has been negative and biased with political agendas that have nothing to do with the growth of rugby. Another unfortunate consequence of this, if we are honest and realistic, is that the Springbok jersey doesn't evoke the same amount of pride as in the past and in comparison to the AB jersey. This sad state of affairs is deduced from the many lacklustre performances especially since the turn of the millennium.
* On a side note, barring the obvious administrative and general leadership failures of SARU, they have actually done quite adequately compared to the other sports institutions in SA. The only other one that generally defy the odds of government mingling and poor administration is cricket. Neither of these sports has been immune to corruption and mismanagement but at least they haven't reached the low levels of athletics, tennis, soccer and many other previously well run sports that are now in utter shambles. Soccer might be the exception though; it has probably never been well run and seems to have always experienced corruption.
* Another area is how NZ has approached rugby in the junior levels, how they develop players and encourage a certain playing style (See 'Development' for more information). By the time most of the players reach the senior level they are well versed in the 'All Black' style.

So why mention this when discussing contracting? In South Africa each province enjoys a different style, so when the players become Springboks they have to adapt to a different system and ideology placing South Africa already on the back foot compared to NZ.

So what can be done with contracting not to be at a disadvantage compared to New Zealand and also not to end up in their financial situation?

Perhaps adjusting the criteria and requirements for how players are contracted is in order. There are a few options on how to do this.

The South African government could take over all rugby up to University level and thus be in charge of development, and provide the funds for it as well, but that isn't the best solution since promoting and growing rugby isn't the government's real agenda.

SARU had the right idea when it had a professional arm, SA Rugby, but it didn't use it for the correct purpose. SA Rugby should be in charge of all that is professional and commercial including negotiating and organizing competitions for the pro teams (similar to NFL in America), which teams competes where and how, how they contract etc.

Teams should be able to contract as many players as they care to but the amount of players available should be addressed. Whereas the NZ system will never allow that the two best players in the same position play for the same union, unfortunately the
SA one will, consider the John Smit and Bismarck du Plessis situation at the Sharks.

How can this be addressed within the SA system?

Let's use Super Rugby as an example. Each Franchise has to announce their squad of 35 players before the tournament starts. Adjustments to the squads are allowed up to a certain point during the competition to allow for injuries. Once past the allowed date it really becomes a nutritional exercise for the teams. Player additions will only be allowed under strict conditions and approval.

This situation has led SA franchises to contract many players for the same positions. Not always because they are necessarily viewed as number 1 or even number 2 but rather for reinforcements. This creates the situation where certain players with plenty of potential never get the same opportunities or exposure to top level rugby. This is the double edged sword of professional rugby. It might create a better (possibly) financial environment for SA teams but in the long run SA rugby will always be at a disadvantage competitively against NZ.

Thus SARU could enforce a rule where players that aren't selected in the final squads of their franchises are released into a pool for other franchises to bid on. By setting an earlier date before (1 or 2 months) where franchises have to finalize their training groups to 40 players, the rest can be released into the pool. If a player is not picked up by another franchise he remains with the franchise and also in the available pool if another team suffers an injury setback etc.

Franchises will have to be selective who they earmark for the final 35 to achieve balance because they would have no use to have too many players available for 1 or 2 positions. Any players that don't make the final 35 will be made available to the pool for the rest of the tournament up until the final cut-off date. The Springbok coaching staff could also have input into where the pool players end up, if they have identified certain potential combinations for the future or to even sharpen certain skills of players.

This is where the apparent weakness of the South African franchise system can be utilised as a benefit to develop players further.

If a player lacks certain defensive skills or awareness then he could be sent to the franchise with the best defensive system (e.g. currently the Stormers with Nienaber) or if a player needs to work on attacking skills and spatial awareness he can be sent to an attack orientated team (e.g. Cheetahs with Fourie). This all depends of course on whether that franchise has a need for that player. This pool system will allow all the teams to stock up on positions they lack and be better balanced and prepared for the competitions.

Obviously there will be niggles in this system that would need to be ironed out, like the potential for a player to learn another teams game plan and calls, and if he doesn't make the final squad and goes back to his franchise (or other team) he can take that intellectual property with him.

If SARU campaigns for 2 international club competitions with 3 SA sides each which will make some of the 'sharing' easier.
However, the bigger picture has to be seen, South African rugby domination, on test and club level. Franchises, players and ultimately the Springboks can only benefit from this.

Development

In the nineties there was a decline of white children participation in rugby in NZ. After investigating the NZRU realized that white mothers where afraid that their sons would get injured playing against the growing number of Pacific Islander children (whose parents immigrated to work in NZ). The fear was that the PI children developed physically at a much younger age. The NZRU decided to change the youth system from age based to weight based (check out the excellent blog article series 'View from a couch' on www.rugby365.com for more in depth information).

NZ players' basic skills, particularly reading space, are on a totally different level. Since all the payers are of similar size their approach from a young level is to always look for, create, and play toward space.

There's no specific style in SA but generally it converges in senior level to try to run over somebody because at younger ages that was a possibility. This might be an obvious contributor to why SA players breakdown so often as well, they experience a higher level of full contact from a much earlier age.

It begs the question, how many talented schoolboys never made it to senior level because of serious injuries?

SARU

We need a strong leader like late Doc Craven or Louis Luyt to take the reins again, political and provincial bias aside.

Doc Craven was dead set against the sport becoming professional but I'm sure if he was still around he would have made some better decisions regarding how it was implemented and structured.

I know some will say I'm contradicting myself because Louis Luyt was around for that. He was a strong-willed individual and as is known today had a big part in transforming rugby from an amateur to professional sport globally. How much the government ended up influencing rugby is also something to consider. At least he had the vision and nerve to get the World Cup here and see South Africa through a transitional phase. Where would he have taken South African rugby ultimately if it wasn't for power and money hungry 'trolls' that ousted him?

I'm not excusing him of some of his antics because he certainly wasn't perfect but he will be remembered as a strong character that got things done for the better more often than not.

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