The 'unwanted stepchild' of South Africa
EXCLUSIVE: rugby365 columnist Ethienne Reynecke looks at how the domestic game in South Africa is being neglected.
Although the Currie Cup has been treated like an unwanted stepchild this year, the competition has still produced quality matches and some exceptional players have emerged.
The South African Rugby Union has been marketing and pushing the Springbok brand so exclusively that traditional derby games like the Blue Bulls versus Western Province have been played on Friday afternoons at 17.00!
Who in the world thought it fit to play such a big derby game on a day and at a time like that?
It's no secret that the Golden Lions repeatedly asked that the deciding pool match between them and the Sharks be moved away from the Friday 17.00 time slot.
SARU wanted nothing of it.
Because the Lions had no big derby match on a Saturday during this year's Currie Cup competition, the biggest crowd attendance was just on 8,000.
I will let you do the sums.
Despite these scheduling issues - and the farce of the Eastern Province Kings only being able to assemble a team a week after the start of the competition - the quality has been good in the majority of the games.
If ever there was an example that consistency and continuity are the main ingredients for success in rugby, the Cheetahs and Lions should be used as case studies.
The Lions have lost the majority of their players to the Springboks, as well as teams in Japan and Europe.
On the flipside are the Cheetahs.
Franco Smith has been given 18 months to build a successful team. They have only lost Lodewyk de Jager and Francois Uys. Francois Venter was injured for most of the season, but as the Currie Cup always does, it produced another stellar talent. Nico Lee was awesome in Venter's absence.
This continuity directly translated into the Cheetahs' success, as they were crowned Currie Cup champions.
It's great to see stars of the Currie Cup getting a chance on the end-of-year tour, even if in some cases it was only against the Barbarians.
Players like Lizo Gqoboka, Francois Venter, Rudolph Snyman, Sergeal Peterson, Rohan Janse van Rensburg and Roelof Smit will undoubtedly leave their mark on the Springbok team once they get a chance.
Spare a thought for some other outstanding Currie cup players - like Pierre Schoeman, Neil Marais, Shaun McDonald, Shaun Adendorf, Johnny Kotze, Philip van der Walt, Clinton Swart, Retshegofaditswe Nche, Jacques Nel, Jason Jenkins and Anthony Volmink.
None of these guys would have looked out of place during the year-end in any team.
On the back of this Currie Cup I question Allister Coetzee's prerogative to make statements like "there aren't many better players to choose from in South Africa…"
Firstly, how is it possible that one of our school sides, Glenwood, wins the most prestigious international schools tournament - beating the likes of Rotorua Boys High from New Zealand - if we do not have the talent in South Africa?
To highlight this point, the same Glenwood team came back home and took hidings against teams like Afrikaanse Hoër Seunsskool (Affies) and Grey College (Bloemfontein).
These young players - just like the generations before them - can't just disappear after moving into senior rugby.
At what point do our boys fall behind or are they not good enough?
And is it even the players who are at fault? Perhaps management should be responsible for developing and growing our future stars.
Have a look at this video!
Buck Anderson is the New Zealand Rugby Union's youth development officer. Take from that video what you will, but if your KPIs as a youth coach is the amount of players that return the following year you know you are on the right path. (If you want a lot of good cream you need to produce a lot of milk)
I maintain that schoolboy rugby is the foundation on which SA can build to remain a powerhouse in world rugby.
However, I feel systems after school is letting us down.
Anderson mentions that there is a focus to get "late developers" through and keep them in the system so that if they come through at a later stage the All Blacks reap the rewards.
Hence he uses the example of Brodie Retallick, while Ben Smith can also be thrown into that mix.
He states that the NZRU's view of developing youth players are not universally accepted.
Can you think how difficult it will be to try and change systems in SA then?
And can SARU, in all honesty, say they are doing enough to promote and grow the game at the lower levels?
Talking about needing a lot of milk to produce a lot of cream.
Nick Mallett's comments on the amount of professional teams in SA has been widely publicised. The South African public takes his opinion as the gold standard for rugby in SA.
I respect the man and all his accomplishments immensely.
But I have to disagree with the statement that we need less professional teams.
Yes, we can't field a sixth competitive Super Rugby team. Or for that matter we can't field more than two or three competitive teams that can reach the play-offs.
However, as we have seen with the new Australian additions, as well as the Argentinean and Japanese sides, it's not easy to add a new team like the Southern Kings.
Getting to Mallett's point, he wants less professional teams and players in South Africa.
Looking at the First Division - the second tier domestic competition in South Africa. This would then NOT be professional in the Mallett model and the First Division will become defunct.
Perhaps he did not watch the First Division Final between the Leopards and the Griffons.
What should have been yet another home Final win for the hosts turned into a masterclass of what can only be described as guts and glory effort by the visitors. The Griffons upset the Leopards 44-25 in a very entertaining match.
The win was epitomised up by the gutsy performance of inside centre Japie Nel, who played in his last match.
Nel took the term "putting your body on the line" to another level and now another stalwart and great servant of the game will walk off into the sunset without as much as handshake from the South African rugby public and media.
Do yourself a favour and check if you can get the re-run on TV. I have no doubt if you watch the game you will be thoroughly impressed, even amazed, and perhaps feel a trickle of sadness that you did not know about a man like this - who has been serving the South African game since 2005.
There are many like these in SA. The difference between a good player and a great player that everyone knows and remembers is only opportunity.
Japie, I salute you. Walk away from the game knowing that the only respect that matters is the respect from your teammates and from the opponents that faced you. I know for a fact there are a lot of that out there.
If SARU are to follow this type of thinking and cut the amount of teams in SA, we would not see matches like these.
Even worse, where would the likes of Francois de Klerk, Willie le Roux, Lodewyk de Jager and Uzair Cassiem have been now if they were not first granted opportunity at a small union?
New Zealand's domestic competition, the National Provincial Championship, essentially also has two divisions - the Premier and Championship, with crossover matches being played.
To see how it works, click here!
It will shock you that the main feeder teams of Super Rugby Franchises like the Highlanders (Otago) and the Hurricanes (Wellington Lions) are in the Championship division and teams like Tasman (secondary feeder team at the Crusaders) and Taranaki (secondary feeder team at the Chiefs) in the Premier division.
It's nothing strange to see a player featuring for a known Super Rugby franchise playing in teams like these. For example, Ihaia West and Robbie Fruean are playing for Hawke's Bay, while Elliot Dixon plays for Southland.
They have 14 teams in a competitive tournament and then bring them all together in only five Super rugby Franchises.
South Africa couldn't even succeed with the Cats, a combination of two big unions, the Golden Lions and Free State Cheetahs.
The exceptions were the 2000 and 2001 seasons, when predominantly Lions players and their coach, New Zealander Laurie Mains, were used.
The point I am making is: How would reducing the number of professional players and teams make us better?
The NPC, which in essence feeds the best team in the world, the All Blacks, proves that having 14 competitive teams is better than having less - as is the case in Australia and South Africa.
The problems originating from the "smaller unions" in SA are political in nature and can be attributed to the amateur days and historical composition of SARU.
Surely SARU can put together a task team to send to NZ for a year and investigate how they put it all together and why it works.
They should analyse, in depth, how players move from school, to club/university, to county/province and on to Super Rugby, eventually feeding the Blacks.
Basically present a full academic study on the business model of NZ rugby.
I doubt that any SARU decision-makers are reading this, but if they do, I will nominate myself to be part of a research body like this to go to NZ and study the structures that lead to 14 teams combining well into five Super Rugby teams.
I can provide a long list of well-educated or successful businessmen with a rugby background that will put their hands up to take on a task like this.
But alas, let's not fool ourselves. The political battles and personal agendas within SARU will prevent ANY such analytical or fact-finding mission that could enhance rugby in SA.
The fact that not all 14 unions in SA are competitive can obviously be attributed to the administration, which also has a direct link to the financial aspect of the challenge. Not only in terms of lack of finance or misappropriation of funds, but paying players as well.
The fact that there is NO transparency, is the first problem. For instance, how can it not be public knowledge what exactly happened at the Kings?
How can some players not receive salaries, while others get paid outrageous amounts?
The financial statements of our unions should be put to the litmus test annually.
I know people will be up in arms, because this might jeopardize the public perception of players' salaries or the operations of unions.
But let's be honest. Transparency and shedding light on things only leads to betterment. Doing things in the dark, hiding it from the public, can only lead to poor results.
I for one believe that a better understanding of the current salary structure across the board will lead to talent staying in South Africa. I am talking about non-Springbok players here.
Case in point.
I had a conversation with a CEO of a First Division team that should be in the Premiership. He told me that he was not willing to pay ZAR250,000 for a flyhalf for his team. This is a team that feels they should be in the Premiership of the Currie Cup.
To put this into perspective, it equates to €15,625.
Europeans can earn €9,600 just claiming from the welfare on an annual basis. (Read more here!)
So it won't surprise you that a ProD2 team (French second division) will pay two to three times that and take a chance on a young flyhalf, even without Super Rugby experience.
The saying "If you pay peanuts, you will get monkeys" comes to mind.
Transparency can only lead to better management, administration and players getting paid accordingly.
* I want to congratulate Duane Heath and the Gold Cup on an excellent competition. New life has been breathed into club rugby in South Africa with the Gold Cup. SARU needs more passionate and capable people like Duane who takes pride in their work. With a crowd of 5,000 spectators at the Final in Rustenburg and many a game seeing those type of numbers, the Gold Cup seems like a fantastic option to get the game closer to the community. This can be used as a base from which to develop the game under young kids and give them exposure to tangible hero's who can get involved.
By Ethienne Reynecke