Professional Rugby As A Career

Back in the era of amateur rugby academic institutions, the military, the police, and the mining industry were the primary routes for promising young rugby players making their way onto the playing fields of the world.

A glance back in the history of club rugby in almost every South African province finds a university or two participating in, and usually dominating the local premier league, often joined by a teacher’s training college or two.

In towns and cities where a large military training base was located, there would be a very competitive military team too, and in a couple of the larger cities where police training bases were located, a similarly competitive police rugby team would be found.

In places like Johannesburg and Kimberley where mining was a primary employer, clubs associated with mines also provided some serious competition.

The so-called open clubs that provided playing facilities for the non-students and those not engaged in military or police service tended to struggle against the institutionalized competition of the rest. Although these clubs did absorb some of the students after they had completed their tenure at university, they tended to struggle along because they simply could not afford the facilities, the support systems, and coaching staffs of the universities. Those open clubs also had the problem that university graduates and other ordinary members were workers in a career or profession, limiting their opportunities for extended practices.

Compulsory National Service meant that the Military and the Police had a constant supply of fresh youngsters straight out of school, as well as a guaranteed supply of experienced established players from the universities who still had to serve their time in uniform.

Remember that this was the so-called amateur era where players were ostensibly not paid to participate in the game.

The truth was a little different!

The universities and teacher’s training colleges scoured the playing fields of leading schools and sent myriads of talent scouts to the annual provincial schools bunfight called the Craven Week. Bursaries were offered to almost every promising youngster as the university made sure that it would remain competitive after the current crop of players registered at the university had moved on. Those bursaries were often granted with little or no investigation into the recruit’s academic strength and whether he would gain entry to the university based purely on the criteria that applied to every other prospective student.

A well known provincial rugby player of my personal acquaintance certainly did not gain a university entrance pass at school, yet a couple of weeks after the publication of matric results that told us he would probably not be furthering his academic development, there he was sticking his hand out to greet me at the university cafeteria! He just laughed when I asked him what course he had registered for! “I don’t know, I think they said BCom or something!”

Amongst my own circle of friends and acquaintances I can mention names of players who went straight into the military after university and were promptly commissioned as officers without doing the usual basic training, or boot camp as it is popularly known today, nor attending any form of officers course or training.

I can mention highly qualified (academically) individuals who were given a suitable rank for a national sportsman, a comfortable room in the local officers mess with all the usual benefits accruing to such officers, and then put in charge of maintaining certain aspects of military sports fields. One friend spent two years ensuring that the white lines on rugby and hockey fields were properly painted by a team of laborers under his control. That was the sum total of his duties, other than to play his particular sport for the local military team. He was frequently away on provincial sporting duties or at practices elsewhere. So much for his military service.

I tell these things to illustrate that even in the so-called amateur era there were many sportsmen and women who were essentially professionals, as their employment was given in recognition for their sporting ability, and their job description was limited to playing their particular sport.

That era of shamateurism and the nudge-nudge wink-wink distribution of envelopes of cash to cover “travelling expenses” and “boot money” is over. Rugby is a fully professional sport and no longer has to find underhand ways to recruit and reward players with potential.

However, in this modern era of professional rugby the question is often asked “Is this a suitable career for a youngster to consider?”

There is no doubt that a rugby player that has the talent and the determination to play the game at the highest levels can and will be suitably rewarded for as long as rugby itself can remain a sustainable professional sport.

No rugby player anywhere in the world earns the eye wateringly obscene amounts of money paid to professional football players where weekly wages of well over £150 000 are not unknown. (That is PER WEEK.) The average Premiership weekly wage for 2014 was a staggering £43 000. Annjualised, that kind of money is more than the annual budget of most national rugby unions in world rugby.

The top, the very top, rugby union players can, and do, earn a lot of money.

If we look at the 2014 list of the top ten earners in professional rugby, we find someone like Jonny Wilkinson, in his final year of rugby with Toulon in France earned €56 000 per month. (SA Rands730 000.)

Here is the list of the Top Ten earners in European and English rugby for 2014:

  1. Matt Giteau – Toulon – €40,000 per month – about R500 000 per month.
  2. Jamie Roberts – Racing Metro – €40,000 per month
  3. Bakkies Botha – Toulon – €41,000 per month
  4. Carl Hayman – Toulon – €41,000 per month
  5. Dimitri Szarzewski – Racing Metro – €41,000 per month
  6. Thierry Dusautoir – Toulouse – €43,000 per month
  7. Morgan Parra – Clermont Auvergne – €46,000 per month
  8. Bryan Habana – Toulon – €50,000 per month
  9. Jonathan Sexton – Racing Metro – €52,000 per month
  10. Jonny Wilkinson – Toulon – €56,000 per month – around R730 000 pm.

That is good money in anybody’s language, even if it does not compare with the amounts paid to top performers in other professional sports such as football, tennis, golf, baseball, basketball, and the American versions of sports.

Over in England the amounts are slightly less:

In most cases, AVIVA premiership clubs offer starting salaries in the region of £20,000 to newly signed youngsters, while top flight players, competing at international level, can earn over £200,000 per annum. Salaries are largely dependent on skills, experience, age, specialist position and the overall status and league position of each club.

Looking outside of Europe, a top international player from South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand who opts to ply his trade in Japan can look to earn around R1 Million per month. Again, that is good money in anyone’s language.

What then, can an average professional, that is one who is not an established international name, earn if he chooses to ply his trade in Europe or the UK?

Somewhere around 600 South African-born players are playing professional rugby in Europe, England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, and Japan. Most of them are relatively unknown back in South Africa. Think of names like Hanno Dirksen, Braam Steyn, Luke Daniels, Naudé Beukes, Chris Lombaard, Thor Halvorsen, and Graham Knoop. Do you recognize any of them?

They are all South Africans playing at clubs in Europe, earn Euros and Pounds and make a very good living. Many of them have never come close to playing Currie Cup rugby, but at their respective clubs in England, Wales, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and France they’re earning up to €5000 per month, around R70 000 per month. Many of these migrant players usually get put up in a house or flat owned by the club or a sponsor and are given the use of a vehicle.

Let’s shift focus to South Africa itself.

Some 600 senior contracted players play for South African based unions or franchises. In South Africa, a Currie Cup player in one of the premier division provinces, with some Super Rugby experience on their CV, will bank between R500 000 and R700 000 per year. If that player happens to be a Springbok his value escalates and you can add a couple of million to his annual income figures. The Star newspaper recently estimated that a Springbok plying his trade locally will bank around R4 Million per year, inclusive of his contract fees, win bonuses, and outside promotional work.

This is chickenfeed compared to the salaries thrown at southern hemisphere migrants who move to Europe, but not every player gets that lucrative offer!

If a player contracted to play overseas happens to be a Springbok their value overseas simply skyrockets – Bryan Habana is earning around R650 000 per month at Toulon!

Have you ever wondered why the likes of Bryan Habana, Bakkies Botha, Zane Kirchner, Andries Bekker, Juandré Kruger, Johan Goosen, Peter Grant, Ryan Kankowski, Ruan Pienaar, Dewald Potgieter, Heinrich Brüssow, Gio Aplon, Keegan Daniel, Charl McLeod and Franco van der Merwe have chosen to play elsewhere?

The simple reality is the South African Rugby Union, whether they want to or not, cannot keep the players in South Africa, not when the local currency is so weak and the offers from abroad are so high.

That gives us a look at the earning capacity of the top players in South Africa. These are the players who have a Super Rugby contract and play for a Currie Cup team in the premier division.

What about the rest?

Each and every year about 200 boys leaving school sign a contract with one of the 14 unions in South Africa.  They will not all stay the course. Some will soon figure that there are perhaps easier ways of earning a living, or that they simply do not have the natural talent, abilities or commitment to play the game for a living.

At any one time, there are about 1 000 contracted players in the professional system across the 14 unions. This does not include each and every player who is “paid” to participate, as a number of larger unions and local universities have arrangements whereby a promising young player is contracted to the union, but is officially registered as a student at the university where he is included in a development squad or more frequently associated to the union’s rugby academy. Whilst some may be granted a bursary to cover their costs other often have to contribute to their own living expenses.

Salaries for the vast majority of professional rugby players are low.

A junior player contracted to one of the eight smaller unions will earn an average of R100 000 a year. That is a salary of just over R8300 per month.

A senior player will earn about double that amount, around R200 000 per annum.

They will earn this amount, if they are lucky and can continue to play for that length of time, for about 10 years.

That is certainly not enough to provide for them and their families once their rugby-playing days are over.

The solution to this problem should be simple: Find a day job!

Unfortunately most unions do not work that way. They want their pound of flesh! Most provincial contracts stipulate a 40-hour week, and players have to report for work between 8am and 4pm every day. They are required to attend fitness sessions, gym sessions, medical assessments, team training sessions, skills sessions, tactical and planning discussions, video analysis sessions. It’s a full-time job! They get the same kind of leave as someone in an office job, around 21 days per annum.

This makes it very difficult for a player to hold down a second income-earning job. It is equally difficult for a player to prepare for a second career after rugby by studying or doing some sort of apprenticeship.

Based simply on the above, those that are thinking of earning a living as a professional rugby player should perhaps consider something else as a career.

Yes, those who make it to Super Rugby or national selection can make it work if they are clever about the opportunities that come their way. They can secure sponsorships and make the contacts that might help them get decent jobs after rugby. They do need to brand themselves and make themselves marketable, it takes extra effort and commitment, but it can be done.

Some Premier Division Currie Cup players might also be able to use their status as a player to find work after rugby, but the reality for most of them, and for those playing in lower leagues such as the Vodacom Cup, the future is unfortunately somewhat bleak.

While researching this article I found an article written in the Rand Daily Mail that discussed this very issue. (Yes the RDM is still around, although on-line only. Look it up!)

They tell us of the old Purple People Eaters of the Northern Free State, known today as the Griffons.

The Griffons are an exceptionally well-managed union. They have thought through their role in an intelligent and realistic way and implemented a strategy that keeps the union solvent, treats their players fairly and produces winning rugby.

Back in the early days of the Northern Free State Union based in Welkom, club rugby was strong, built around the various mines and their teams. The thriving community of Welkom also drew migrants from the provincial capital, Bloemfontein, as university graduates, qualified teachers, entrepreneurs and artisans flocked to the bustling town in search of a career. Many of those migrants were experienced rugby players who brought their skills and playing nous with them. The Northern Free State team was strong and life was good.

Times have changed! There are hardly any working mines left in the region, many businesses that supported the mining industry have left, and the local economy is in the doldrums.

The Griffons rugby union needs to be very careful with every cent they have. Most of their funds come in the form of the R10m annual share of broadcasting revenue from the South Africa Rugby Union.

The Griffons decided about eight years ago that the best way to serve rugby in their region was to position themselves as a development unit.

This meant limiting the amounts they spent on professional players and instead instituting an innovative system of semi-professionalism. They currently allocate less than half their income to professional salaries.

Most of their players have full-time jobs at local firms. Local employers accommodate these semi-professional rugby players by adjusting salaries and allowances to take into account the time spent on training and matches. The Griffons pay a monthly retainer and a decent match fee to make up the difference.

The Griffons management encourage their players to study. Many of their players are students at the Free State University in Boemfontein who commute to Welkom for rugby purposes. The Griffons plan their training schedules around the timetables of the students and those who work for outside firms.

The Griffons have won the First Division Currie Cup, proving that, despite these restrictions, they are still able to produce winning rugby.

They also manage to nurture stars for the bigger stage: SA Sevens stars Cecil Afrika and Branco du Preez both started their professional careers at the Griffons.

The Griffons stay within their budget. The do not borrow funds or operate on a deficit.

Instead of trying to compete with the Cheetahs, their big-brother Super Rugby franchise down the road in Bloemfontein, the Griffons collaborate with them and share resources. In fact the CEO of the Griffons, Eugene van Wyk, is the Cheetahs Super Rugby team manager!

So, if you have a son or a nephew who is considering a career as a professional rugby player, what advice should you give him?

The reality is that most, more than 95%, of youngsters who try to earn a living out of rugby will need to take steps to prepare themselves for a career after the final whistle sounds. They will not be able to survive on their earnings from the game.

Unless, of course, they do make the massive leap and earn national colours….. Then, and only then, might they be able to grow a nest egg large enough to live on after rugby.

Bill van Zyl

Circa 7 May 2015