GLAMOROUS though it might appear, a career in rugby is not the wisest choice. Each year, about 200 boys sign on for the first time with one of the 14 unions. At any one time, there are about 1,000 professional players in the system. At the most, 5% of them will make it into the national team, which means they stand a chance of earning enough to live on and, at the same time, investing enough money to retire on.
Salaries for the vast majority of professional players are low. A junior player contracted to one of the eight smaller unions will earn an average of R100,000 a year. A senior player will earn R200,000. The minority who make it into Super Rugby squads will earn between R700,000 and R800,000. They will earn this amount, if they are lucky, for about 10 years. It will not be enough to provide for them and their families once their rugby-playing days are over.
Most contracts stipulate a 40-hour week: players have to report for work between 8am and 4pm and they get 20 days’ holiday a year. This means it is difficult for them to prepare at the same time for a second career by studying or doing some sort of apprenticeship.
Those who make it to Super Rugby can make it work if they are clever about the opportunities that come their way. They can secure sponsorships and make the contacts which might help them get decent jobs after rugby. Some Premier Division Currie Cup players might also be able to leverage their brand value. But for most Vodacom Cup players, the future is bleak.
This is one of the reasons the professional aspirations of the small unions is so problematic. They don’t do these young men any favours.
There is one glowing exception: the Welkom-based 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 which keeps the union solvent, treats their players fairly and produces winning rugby.
The Griffons started life as the Northern Free State Provincial team and were based in the then thriving mining community in Welkom. Club rugby was strong and most mines had their own teams.
Now there are hardly any working mines and their funds come mostly 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 amount they spent on professional players and instead instituting an innovative system of semi-professionalism. They allocate less than half their income to professional salaries.
Some of their players have full-time jobs at local firms. Their employers usually deduct the time spent on training and matches but the Griffons pay a monthly retainer and a decent match fee as compensation.
Other players are full-time students. Some play for the University of Free State Varsity Cup team, the Shimlas, and they are loaned to the Griffons for five months.
The Griffons management encourage their players to study. They plan their training schedules around the timetables of the students and those who work for outside firms.
Last year, the union took home 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: both Cecil Afrika and Branco du Preez started their professional careers at the Griffons.
Unlike some other unions, the Griffons stay within their budget. For the past six years, the union has broken even, despite the fact that they channel significant funding into the clubs and schools that fall under their jurisdiction. They field several amateur provincial teams, including girls’ under 15s, women’s under 17; provincial under 19s and under 17s.
As a journalist, what impressed me most about the Griffons was their openness. All it took was an email to their CEO, Eugene van Wyk, to elicit a copy of their 2014 financial statements, complete with a detailed breakdown of where every cent goes.
This is despite the fact that Van Wyk is currently in Australasia, touring with the Cheetahs, for whom he acts as team manager.
Instead of trying to compete with the Cheetahs, their local Super Rugby franchise, the Griffons collaborate with them and share resources. It’s eminently sensible and an example that all the small unions should be following.
Semi-professionalism is the way to go for the smaller unions. It means that they can stay within their budgets, provide proper support to amateur rugby in their regions and manage their contracted players properly. And that means ensuring they balance their rugby with preparation for a second career.
*This column first appeared in Business Day