Tank Lanning

Varsity Cup - amateur or pro?

2013-03-14 09:42
Sport24 columnist Tank Lanning (File)
Oh what to do with the Varsity Cup?

News surfacing this week is that a very prominent Varsity Cup side is again in the dock, having been accused of cheating on student numbers in every game this season. It is alleged that the side accused of cheating are angling for some sort of plea bargain that will see them docked just five log points from a single game, but at least one advocate suggests that there is precedent from overseas leagues where all points are docked from a team for each transgression.

It remains to be seen as to how public the Varsity Cup management will go with this.

With other stories surfacing about players not even knowing what they are supposed to be studying and being paid in the region of R20 000 per month, open club players being farmed out to Varsity Cup sides for the tournament before returning to their original club, none of the players of the tournament nominees last year being a student, one player seeking a transfer thinking that his course was a correspondence course given that he was not required to attend lectures, the tournament has quite clearly arrived at a watershed moment.

Based on comments posted on a previous column on the Varsity Cup, it is fairly clear that the general public does not really care that much. It just being a good opportunity to watch some rugby on a Monday night and have a really good party should you be a student with lectures not worth attending on a Tuesday. And for that, the Varsity Cup organisers must be commended. It is a slickly run tournament that has truly livened up, and enriched, the rugby season. Hell, I love either getting up to my Alma Mater or denting the couch on Monday evenings!

And perhaps we should just let it evolve into a semi professional tournament and see what pans out …

The truth is, though, that professional rugby (even at Under-20 level) is very difficult to combine with genuine study given the demands of the unions - so it is not really possible to have elite and student rugby in the same breath in SA (except for a small and exceptional minority). So you either have student rugby (like in the US with college football - with some of its problems - where the priority is less the absolute standard of the play than the evenness of the competition and only around 5% of division 1 college players go onto the NFL) or you have the farce we have in SA.

In reality, no club or varsity (even with the Varsity and Community Cup tournaments) is remotely commercially viable and thus survives on university marketing budget or the largess of a single or few benefactors. Again the reverse of the US where the top colleges are very focussed on keeping costs down (limiting the number of scholarships available and the amount that can be spent to academic fees and board and lodging) so the revenues can fund both other sports and the general university coffers. 

Here we are going down the road of the B section Currie cup teams who spend themselves into insolvency. A much better model is the second tier provinces in New Zealand where the unions have recognised the danger (via the bankruptcy of Otago) and voluntarily agreed to salary caps and  limiting the number of professionals etc. The standard is still high, the level of competition exceptional, but 90% of players study or work, and don’t confuse rugby with a career. The route is still open for those few who are good enough to be noticed and move on but it is not the primary option and the players are better served as a consequence.

So if you want to be pro rugby player (Prof Tim Noakes suggests that just 0.4% of sport playing schoolboys go on to make a career of it), you got to a provincial academy and try play age group rugby ... Or you focus on your career and studies while still being able to play a relatively good standard of rugby with likeminded people.  

And if the amateur community rugby structures surrounding the latter (such as the Varsity and Community Cups) bring in some money, then that money is put it toward the structures responsible for creating that environment.

Tank is a former Western Province tighthead prop who now heads up Tankman Media, and sprouts forth on all things rugby on the Front Row Grunt

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