Club Rugby in SA?
Along with the announcement and eventual launch of the Cell C Community Cup tournament a debate that has been raging over many years was brought to the public forefront! In truth the debate quickly passed the actual tournament by and discussions were and are regularly conducted in the social media, internet, traditional press and over beers at various stadia and clubs country wide.
Despite many different discussion points and variations thereof, a mere handful of such need to be answered and they are: “What is understood by the word ‘club’”, “What should the role(s) of club rugby in a South African context be?” and “Is club rugby really that important to South African rugby?”
With the advent of professionalism the entire rugby landscape changed dramatically. The “old ways” and structure of club – province – Springbok abruptly disappeared without most of us at the time realizing it had! Suddenly Unions registered companies and the entire focus swung to commercializing rugby and it became all about cash flow, contracts and profit.
The age of “rock star” players was born and we soon got used to players being contracted into squads and playing rugby on a full time basis whilst earning fantastic salaries in many ways. Brand sponsorships, image rights, collective agreements, agents and the like became part of rugby banter, but all off it applied to only 14 unions and a couple of hundred players. In the proverbial dust caused by the melee of the head-down rush into professionalism 90% plus of rugby players were simply left behind and all but forgotten.
Almost unnoticed the ”habit” of referring to club rugby as being “amateur” became part of any discussion and , as a result, the ethos and traditions of the amateur era was simply associated with such rugby. However, as the years went by the lack of funds available to clubs became the main topic of discussion and as the realities of contracted Union squads kicked in, so did the difficulty of recruiting and keeping new and/or young players.
Coaches and players started to demand reimbursement of cost incurred and very soon plain remuneration for coaching or playing. Subject to the level at which the club plays and the quality of player recruited such remuneration can be in the form of match fees, win bonuses and/or a monthly “salary”. So the question begs: “Is the concept of club rugby synonymous with amateur rugby?” Can be, but not always so. The suggestion is that the term “club” should simply mean that and nothing more.
It is within the role(s) that clubs should play where the types of clubs can be described/defined. To determine these roles one has to first determine the needs and/or requirements of players. Note: PLAYERS, not some club committee, a Union or anything or – body else. For purposes of this specific article it is suggested that such needs may be grouped into the following, namely (1)“pay for play”, development stepping stone for so-called late developers and /or young players not privileged to attend Union Academies and (2) simply playing for fun or as a healthy social activity.
The latter is suggested to represent the old ethos of true amateur rugby and matters such as match fees, win bonuses and salaries should not play any role whatsoever. Such clubs should be registered as Social or amateur clubs with the sole vision of having fun and/or doing some social good. Standard of play and conditioning in line with typical part-time players, spectators mostly family and friends coming along for the ‘braai’ and everybody simply having a good time. Like in years gone by!
Many players however currently depend on the fees earned playing rugby to make ends meet, some senior players still have ambitions and sometimes the skills/talent to force their way into a pro squad and young school leavers seek an alternative path to reach pro squads. This is where clubs fail and it needs to be addressed in a clinically analytical manner, devoid of amateur sentiments.
The only way by which these latter needs can be effectively addressed is if some clubs are registered as “Commercial clubs”. By doing so another level of full-time and remunerated players will be created, and a true feeder structure into provincial and S15 pro squads will also be created.
Likewise youngsters will be assured of the best possible coaching and conditioning very similar to those attending Union Academies are receiving. It is suggested that a mere 30 clubs country wide will probably meet the to-be-determined criteria to register as a Commercial Club, but that these clubs will compete in both a regional and a national league.
It is suggested that also Universities be allowed to register as such, but that some allowances are made to accommodate students. Along with the further suggestion that Commercial Clubs may have a Social/Amateur division as well, it is of paramount importance that rugby takes a leaf from the Royal & Ancient rules of golf. Players need to be registered as professionals or amateurs!
The criteria also to be determined, but simply put; if you “play-for-pay”, you are a pro! Needless to say, but it goes to reason that Social/Amateur clubs or such Divisions within Commercial Clubs will not be permitted to pay any player for play.
The question regarding the importance of club rugby remains. It is suggested that club rugby as it is played today has an extremely limited role to play as a feeder base to pro provincial squads and hardly any as a development stepping stone for youngsters.
If one accepts that by far the majority of clubs are struggling to survive and that the lack of interest spectator-wise is proof hereof, one cannot other than believe that such state of affairs is at least partly a result of clubs being caught between being purely amateur and trying to “pay-for-play”.
Struggling and closing down clubs have no value on a social or social-economic level for any community. However, it is strongly suggested that club rugby is all important to the health and growth of the game in SA! It is unfortunately also suggested that the current state of affairs is doing SA rugby no good because player needs are either not addressed and/or clubs are pretending to be one thing whilst attempting to operate as something else.
Time and space do not allow a lengthy discussion, but each of the above suggestions and many others probably deserve vigorous debate independent from any other. Ultimately and whatever the proposed new structure, such new structure must stand the test of addressing the diverse needs and expectations of all players.
A healthy and strong club scene, addressing the needs of all players, will most certainly ensure the continued health (and wealth) of the sport in SA. The alternative is that more clubs will regularly close and ultimately the traditional culture of our rugby lost.
The battle for spectators and especially TV viewers will become a war against big brother soccer, other sports and SA Idols.
Whomever offers the best/most entertainment is whom I watch – simple as that. Times and needs have changed and clubs need to change with it. If not … Gone will be that inherent craving for the game born out of generations of club rugby – the craving that assures the life of our sport at any level.
Follow Stephan on Twitter: @Sterugby1