Imagine being one of the WP, Sharks or
Lions Under-21 coaches right now... No doubt on a high after getting their sides into
this weekend’s tournament semi-finals, their return to earth would have been
pretty damn swift upon seeing the likes of lock Paul Willemse, flank Jacques du
Plessis, flyhalf Handré Pollard and centre Jan Serfontein in the Bulls team
sheet for the playoffs!
The Blue Bulls' exit from the Currie Cup
real deal will have hurt the proud Pretoria union, and tarnished coach Pine
Pienaar’s reputation, but obviously comes as a welcome bonus for Under-21 coach
And provides further proof of the Bulls big
call to build for the future through contracting younger players, rather than
“quick fix” journeyman to plug the holes left by the departure of a raft of
Not only are the four above mentioned
players still Under-21, Pollard and Du Plessis are still Under-19! And the fact that the
Bulls managed to get both their Under-19 and Under-21 sides into the semi-finals this
weekend, even while utilising youngsters such as these four to play for the
Currie Cup side, says a lot about the depth they are developing in Pretoria.
It is a slightly risky strategy in the
professional era, given that player loyalty is only as deep as the next pay
check, but I like it. Economic reality is biting hard in South Africa (and
round the world, even if France and Japan are bucking the trend, but even those
pockets will dry up at some stage), and the days of handing out R4 million a
year contracts willy-nilly to so called “marquee” players are gone.
I have long said that rugby is writing
cheques it simply cannot cash, both in terms of massive payments to big name
players, but also in terms of the sheer amount of professional players on the
various union’s books. It is unsustainable, hence the recent Lions financial
fiasco, and the fact that every single small union in South Africa would be
bankrupt were it not for the annual pay-out they get from SARU.
So given that we will never be able to
match the offers made to players from overseas based clubs (that poor Rand of
ours is taking a worse beating than the Limpopo Bulls took in the Vodacom Cup),
we need to come up with a different strategy. One would be to curb the internal
spending wasted on keeping all these smaller unions alive, and the other is to
develop a culture that makes players want to stay.
And that is what I like about the Bulls
strategy. Rather than bring in a big name, big salary, lock from another
province to replace the likes of Matfield, Botha and Rossouw, rather nurture a
young guy like Willemse (even though he did sneak off to the Lions for a season
or two) in an environment that looks to build a family like culture where
players feel welcome, looked after, and happy.
In his book, Victor Matfield made several
references to the family like culture of the Bulls while he was there... John
Smit has been very open about the amazing culture developed at Saracens (albeit
with several South African players) and his want to develop something similar
at the Sharks... Down at UCT, it is something we work very hard on given that we
just do not have the cash that some other universities have.
As said, it may be a bit of a pipe dream in
the professional era, but with the monopoly money fast running out, I truly
believe that culture, gees, spirit, vibe... call it what you want... treating
players like assets and not commodities, and in return, demanding respect and
performance will play a big role in where players decide to play their rugby.
Tank is a former Western Province tighthead prop and editor of the recently launched free monthly digital rugby magazine called SCRUM
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