Traditionally the weak rand when compared to the lucrative Pound and Euro contracts offered abroad has posed a massive struggle to our domestic sides in their quest to keep their top players at home. Whilst rugby involves a great amount of passion, there is no denying that it is also a business. Players have maybe 10 - 15 years in a career (unless of course you're Frans Steyn) to make their money and set themselves up for life beyond the sport. So who can blame them for chasing contracts that compensate them well for their athletic prowess?
SARU has tried numerous methods of player retention such as limiting Springbok selection, offering more national contracts to a wider group of players and even introducing right of first retention into playing contracts in a bid to stem the player exodus. None of it worked and I believe SARU has taken the correct stance in allowing the Springboks to select players regardless of where they play their domestic rugby. It's really quite simple, why punish a player for looking after their future whilst inadvertently punishing the Springboks when you don't select the best player available.
The financial troubles at the DHL Stormers is well documented and I won't delve into them here. But the Sharks and Bulls find themselves in a very different position. The Bulls were first to welcome outside investment when Patrice Motsepe purchased a 37% share in the side. This was the first move towards privatization seen in the domestic game here. What soon followed was an influx of big names to Loftus, albeit many of them in the twilight of their careers now. The money was there and Jake White and co quickly set about bolstering their playing stocks adding the likes of Arno Botha, Marcell Coetzee, Morne Steyn, Bismarck Du Plessis and Johan Goosen to name a few.
Soon after, the Sharks pounced on a deal that the Stormers failed to close and MVM Holdings, an American based consortium came on board. In addition to this, the global partnership with Jay-Z's Roc Nation meant a massive cash injection was headed to the coastal side.
“In a move designed to bolster The Sharks’ ambitions of becoming a global force in world rugby, the KwaZulu-Natal franchise has welcomed a dynamic, MVM Holdings, an international investment consortium spearheaded by Marco Masotti, has entered into an agreement to purchase a 51 percent majority stake in The Sharks.”
The Sharks also reaped the rewards of this cash injection with probably the biggest coup in SA Rugby when the signed Springbok Captain Siya Kolisi. Kolisi wasn't alone though and last weekend hooker Bongi Mbonambi turned out for the black and white in his Sharks debut. Before the signing of Handre Pollard to Leicester Tigers, there were murmurs of him linking up with the Durban side too. I have no doubt that the Sharks will continue to build on their squad depth now that they have the resources to do so, and this considering their team is already brimming with Springboks as is.
There are a number of big name players back in SA but they are mostly headed to either of the Sharks or the Bulls, because that's where the money is. Whilst I have no doubt that player contracts remain larger in Europe, its hard to imagine as many players leaving our braai and biltong laden land for cold and soggy Europe if they can earn a solid living here, so what then is the biggest stumbling block?
Currently I believe it is the lack of top tier competition. This has become a problem ever since SA exited Super Rugby when the pandemic broke out last year. The URC shows great promise as a competition, but with all the changes and adaptions required to accommodate the competition in the current climate it is a tough sell to the fans and players. It's difficult to convince a top tier player to come home, when you can't promise him solid game time and top tier competitions as the best want to be tested against the best.
A chance to play in the Prem, Top 14 or European Champions Cup currently is the pinnacle of the sport and players will always chase those accolades, regardless of the financial reward accompanying them. Athletes are competitive to their core and once you've won a Currie Cup or two, you want that bigger challenge.
SA has it all on their table, they have the opportunity to play in Europe domestically and in the Southern Hemisphere internationally. This is an enviable position to be in, now they just need to tie it all together and get some consistency in how the URC will unfold, because the uncertainty is making it a tough competition to buy into and a hard one to follow.