The Case for Central Contracting Grows.

The news that six Springbok squad members have signed contract extensions with the Lions has been widely welcomed by fans of South Africa’s top performing franchise.

On Tuesday, the Lions confirmed that No 8 Warren Whiteley, hooker Malcolm Marx, scrumhalf Ross Cronje, wing Aphiwe Dyantyi, flank Cyle Brink and lock Marvin Orie have all committed to the Johannesburg-based franchise.
The re-signing of these players comes as good news for the Lions after several high-profile players left at the completion of this year’s Super Rugby competition to further their careers in Europe.

The good news also comes shortly after the Lions confirmed that Andres Coetzee, and Elton Jantjies have committed themselves to the Jo’burg based franchise until 2020, after both had explored possible contracts in the UK and France but had failed to agree terms with anyone.

Others who have also signed on until the end of the 2020 season include, Lionel Mapoe and Courtnall Skosan.

A Big But…

However, there is one tiny niggling little problem. Both Whiteley and Marx have signed on for just one more year – until after the 2019 World Cup in Japan.

The fact that Marx and Whiteley have not signed on for longer is cause for some concern, not only for the Lions, but for South African rugby as a whole.

This is an undoubted indicator that they are putting the word out that they are open to offers from anywhere in the world, once the World Cup is done and dusted.

The departure of senior players seeking a bigger paycheque and, perhaps, a somewhat lighter playing load elsewhere in the world is a serious issue for the southern hemispherean countries, especially South Africa.

Not only does the departure of top quality players directly result in a lower standard of rugby at the local levels; the knock-on consequences are enormous as the fans stay away from games, sponsors and advertisers drift off to other sports where they get exposure for their products, and the game slowly withers.

A further consequence is found in the non-availability of players who are desperately needed at the national level but are contractually committed elsewhere. This impacts directly on the quality of the national team itself, and also works to the detriment of the premier level of the game, Test Rugby itself.

Whilst every player has the perfect right to seek the best pay-package for his services, and every club has the right to recruit whomsoever they wish, the migration of players from the southern hemisphere is certainly not good for rugby in the long run. The problem is what to do about it?

Australia have been accused of throwing eye-wateringly large amounts of money at their top players in order to retain their services within the country’s rugby structures. The David Pococks, Israel Folaus, Kurtley Beales, and Michael Hoopers are tied into massive longer-term financial packages. Just in the last 14 days Hooper has signed a six-year contract that will pay him an enormous Aus$6 Million. Add in his earnings from endorsements, merchandising, appearance fees and the like, and he is well set to retire from the game a very wealthy man. Israel Folau is holding his cards very close to his chest as his contract expires at the end of 2018 and he is making all kinds of noises about leaving the game, perhaps even switching codes. The ARU are scrambling to sign him as soon as possible, and the amounts of money being whispered will make Hooper’s contract seem small.

The criticism of these huge contracts revolve around the paucity of the amounts Rugby Australia are spending on grass-roots development of the game. This is an issue that is perhaps unique to Australia as they have no natural conveyor belt of younger talent as do South Africa and New Zealand where rugby is played across the country’s school system.

Yet, the central contracting of the likes of Hooper provides an answer to the constant drain of Australian players to the more lucrative rugby competitions of the north.

New Zealand already make good use of the central contracting system in an attempt to hold on to their most valuable players, although they do struggle to compete financially with some of the money offered by the French and some of the English clubs. Some of the younger New Zealanders have chosen to sign shirt-term contracts, an obvious tactic akin to holding a gun to the NZRU’s head.

South Africa, where every player is contracted to his local union and franchise, has a completely different system, which allows for a much easier movement of players between provincial unions, franchises, and even off to foreign climes. Contract terms are most often for just one or two years, and then the player is back on the market and can negotiate with anyone who offers deeper pockets or a more attractive city to live in.

There has recently been talk about changing the system in South Africa, with further talks scheduled for the next two weeks as Rassie Erasmus, wearing his National Director of Rugby hat, seeks changes to the current contracting system.

It is very evident that South Africa needs to follow the New Zealand and Australian examples and institute a system of central contracting.

The top players, those considered key to the success and future of the national side and local rugby, must be tied in with longer term contracts that ensure worthwhile compensation for their services and guaranteeing their availability to local teams and franchises. The system of central contracting offers the additional benefit of allowing the national coaching squad to manage the workload of individuals, enforcing time off from the game despite the demands of often desperate franchise coaches. The “ownership” of the player needs to be removed from the franchise and transferred to the national body.

Promising youngsters should be offered similar longer-term contracts, with a view to developing and nurturing them over a longer period and removing the temptation to jump ship for a few dollars more.

During these times when SARU and some of the local franchises are cash-strapped, the centrally contracted players can easily be sponsored by, and sub-contracted to, commercial enterprises that would be happy to have a Duane Vermeulen, Malcolm Marx, Handré Pollard, or Aphiwe Dyantyi as a corporate host and public face in their advertorials.

There are many ways to skin a cat.

Youngsters could also be “sponsored” by commercial subscription and the like.

Malcolm Marx is rapidly becoming one of the most valuable players is World Rugby. South Africa needs him, and must find a way of retaining his services for as long as possible. A longer-term central contract is an imperative!