It has been a difficult period for South Africa’s Super Rugby franchises, who have operated in the knowledge that every one of their players was at risk of leaving.
The good news is that the 21-day window that gave all professional players in the country an opportunity to exit their existing contracts has now passed, but what it has done is remind all involved how attractive lucrative overseas deals are for players during this time of financial instability.
The window, organised through the SA Rugby Industry, MyPlayers and the South African Rugby Employers’ Organisation (Sareo) last month, served as part of a broader cost-cutting mission. With financial projections suggesting that SA Rugby could lose up to R1 billion by the end of 2020 if no further rugby takes place this year, pay cuts have been implemented across the board with players, coaches and staff at the unions all impacted.
Malcolm Marx was one of four players to leave the Lions, Tyler Paul was the Sharks’ only casualty while the Bulls, under the new leadership of director of rugby Jake White, have been active in the transfer market themselves as they look to start afresh.
In Cape Town, the Stormers have lost Cobus Wiese and Jean-Luc du Plessis, but the major story of the transfer window came in the form of Springbok star Pieter-Steph du Toit.
Du Toit, the 2019 World Rugby Player of the Year, exited his contract on Thursday night last week, hours before the window expired, but he did so with the intention of signing a new, amended deal at Newlands that would have limited the impacts of pay cuts.
Over the weekend, Stormers management was negotiating that deal with Du Toit and his representatives, but by Monday morning there was still nothing official.
It is, however, looking increasingly likely that Du Toit will leave, with lucrative offers from Japan and France available for him to fall back on.
Western Province Rugby Union (WPRU) president Zelt Marais has been vocal on what he considers to be unethical behaviour from clubs abroad, saying that all transfer activity should have been banned during the global coronavirus crisis, with leagues around the world suspended.
Marais made a plea during the window, which closed last Thursday, to agents and overseas clubs to not act “unscrupulously” during a time in which he considered South African unions and players to be in a vulnerable position. “We need compassion at a time like this, and rules of war should apply,” he said. Stormers head coach John Dobson agreed, saying in a video press conference last week that assistance from World Rugby would have been welcomed.
“I would have thought that a moratorium would have been a brilliant idea,” he said at a time when he was confident that he would hold onto all his players, including Du Toit.
“We’ve got a situation in the Rugby Championship where Argentina will become an exporter like they used to be. Fiji and the Pacific Islands are already exporters and we certainly don’t want to be in the same category.
“For the good and the balance of world rugby, a moratorium (on transfer activity) would be very clever to let us find our feet.”
European and Japanese clubs were already in more financially stable positions, generally, compared to South African unions and franchises, and that gulf has only been amplified by the coronavirus.
The Stormers’ financial struggles in recent years have been well documented, and Dobson believed a moratorium would have allowed the franchises and unions some time to adjust to the added demands of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Our revenue models are under such pressure and then there is an exchange rate. It would make a lot of sense for southern hemisphere rugby and the balance of world rugby,” he said.
“I think what we desperately need is time for rugby to find its feet and get settled. You’re running businesses where you don’t know where the next rand is coming from in terms of revenue.
“I think there should be a period of allowing us to adapt.”
The matter has been further complicated by the fact that SA Rugby, and their director of rugby Rassie Erasmus, have given the green light for players to base themselves abroad without it impacting their availability for the Springboks.
“What is worrying me is that we need a strong commercial product here. We’ve all seen the amount of schoolboys we’ve had going overseas and the average age of South Africans playing overseas is dropping significantly,” Dobson said.
“Our domestic product is what worries me. What happens to our sponsorships and revenues, here at the Stormers, if we’re playing with 21 and 22 year-olds that people don’t know?
“Surely that chases us towards becoming the next exporter? We need a healthy, robust industry.”
Over at the Sharks, where the damage has been controlled and the franchise received a major boost with the news that star Springbok Makazole Mapimpi had turned down an offer from Japan, chief executive Ed Coetzee said the culture at the union was ultimately what saw them hold onto their players, but that there were lessons to be taken from the experience.
“One thing we’ve learnt is that there should be a lot more unity in South African rugby,” Coetzee said.
“This was quite a divisive 21 days where it actually split the professional rugby community.”