When rugby embarked on the path to professionalism 26 years ago, it did so kicking and screaming. The sport, deeply rooted in amateurism, was going to take time not only to accept the new, uncertain times but also to come to grips with and embrace them.
Fast-forward to 2022 and the concept of professionalism in the South African context – or what represents progress – draws different responses from different quarters. Private investment has been encouraged and has come to the sport gradually. But as it has started to accelerate, a more insular culture in which it is every man for himself has taken root.
This is not a bad character trait at the now well-funded and resourced Bulls and Sharks franchises. They have developed a better grasp of what works and benefits them as opposed to the wider rugby fraternity, which is restricted to hand-to-mouth decisions.
A case in point is the way the Sharks and the Bulls view the salary cap under which South African rugby franchises have to operate when assembling their squads. The Sharks, Bulls, Lions and Stormers have to stay under R68 million a year in player contracts.
The cap was introduced to protect franchises and provincial unions from themselves. It was aimed at tempering ambition with reality so that teams don’t dig themselves into a financial hole. The arrival of the pandemic underlined the need for austerity, but the Bulls and the Sharks want the salary cap relooked.
They say the conditions under which the salary cap was set are no longer applicable. And they have been at pains to explain that South Africa’s participation in the European Rugby Champions Cup next season will necessitate greater player spending if they are going to be competitive.
The salary cap
England have a £5 million (around R98 million) annual salary cap, while French clubs can spend up to £8.4 million (R165 million). Playing in the Champions Cup, United Rugby Championship (URC) and Currie Cup will require greater player resources, they say.
“The salary cap should be fair,” said Sharks chief executive Eduard Coetzee. “We should be able to compete with the Celtic teams in the URC. None of them have salary caps, hence they can have so many international players and they work closely with their home federations. Our suggestion is to keep the cap and if you need to go over you provide financial guarantees in order to safeguard the industry and the players so that we don’t have future issues like franchises that go into administration.”
Altmann Allers, the chairman and 74.9% shareholder of the Lions, said it is ridiculous to want to increase the salary cap. The industry should self-medicate before exposing itself to further risk, he said. “You need to build a decent pipeline. If you keep scooping the cream from elsewhere, you don’t have a sustainable model.”
The Lions will also have to play across three fronts, although the addition to their playing schedule will be the Challenge Cup. Allers said increasing squads will bring about a payroll burden that few can afford. A more equitable spread of game time through contracted squad members is the way forward, he added.
The Stormers put their boardroom squabbles to the side and produced a string of home wins, which propelled them into the URC play-offs where they face Edinburgh in the quarterfinals on 4 June. But the franchise is in no position to go on an aggressive recruitment drive. There is no private shareholder and the Stormers rely on broadcast revenue, sponsorships, merchandising and meagre gate-takings. The franchise is, however, being steered to calmer financial waters under the stewardship of SA Rugby.
But the Sharks and the Bulls are keen to press on.
At the current trajectory, these two franchises will become the pre-eminent forces in South African rugby, although the Stormers are becoming an increasingly more attractive proposition for investors. It will be up to the other franchises to catch up with the Sharks and the Bulls. But whether they drag the lagging franchises along with them or are hamstrung by them remains to be seen.
Branding and empires
The salary cap is a discussion point at the SA Rugby Employers’ Organisation, which will ultimately rule on the matter. While they may differ slightly in how they want to do it, the Sharks and the Bulls will be desperate to continue building their empires.
The Sharks have always been brand aware. They rebranded vigorously from being the Banana Boys against which bully boys occasionally slipped up to the feared and ruthless East Coast predators they are today. They have zealously maintained a strong fan base outside the borders of KwaZulu-Natal, but their horizons are fast expanding. Their consortium of investors anchored by United-States based MVM Holdings and their association with talent managers Roc Nation have given the Sharks access to funding and reach that was barely imaginable a few years ago.
With that comes ambition and their enthusiastic foray into the player transfer market is clear evidence of a franchise constantly on the move. They want to take the Sharks brand global and one way of getting recognised quickly around the world is to win trophies.
The Bulls understand this concept, although they are more rooted in their history and upholding the traditions they hold dear. In Patrice Motsepe and Johann Rupert they have majority shareholders with vast wealth and expertise. However, the two big drivers of the Bulls’ success in recent years are director of rugby Jake White and Blue Bulls Rugby Union president Willem Strauss.
Both are calculated plotters and schemers who know the local landscape inside out. White is a shrewd, pragmatic coach who knows how to squeeze the best out of his players. Strauss, who has energised the union, knows the inner workings of South African rugby and also understands the congregation closest to him. He has sought to bring them closer to a professional setup from which they may have felt alienated.
The Bulls and the Sharks carry the weight of expectation of owners whose ambition is as great as their pockets are deep. It is the “dead weight” elsewhere in the country that is likely to hold back their progress.