An interesting junior rugby new item has come up. Young Lions contracted loosehead prop Nathan MacBeth (Monnas old boy & SA Schools under-18 International) has opted to play for Scotland at this year’s World Rugby Under-20 Championship.
Understandably he’ll remain available to the Lions as part of his 3-year contract and representing Scotland u20 won’t prevent him from qualifying to play for the Boks one day, unlike playing for the Baby Boks, which would immediately country-tie him to South Africa for life.
I guess it’s fair to say that more and more young SA born rugby players in South Africa are weighing up their options about whether to stick it out and chase the dream of playing test rugby for their country of birth or look abroad at the potentially lucrative options available.
Junior rugby in SA is hardly glamorous. It doesn’t come close to the big school rugby derbies in terms of sideline support. If 200 people pitch up for an u19 Currie Cup game, that’s a good crowd by average attendance standards. U21 Currie Cup games can do better in terms of popularity if they serve as the curtain-raisers for senior pro matches, otherwise they too have to make do with three-figure attendance numbers. So the provincial rugby unions that pour huge sums of money into junior contracts and junior player development facilities, coaches and programmes, definitely are not reaping rewards via sponsorship or winning junior titles. The benefits of junior rugby are what it’s able to achieve in terms of preparing players to make the step up to senior pro level, where the real rewards and ROI’s lie. If done right, it’s a good investment. When it’s managed wrong it’s a major expense.
So when you have a junior like MacBeth who cannot be tied down to a long term commitment, does a rugby union like the Golden Lions take the chance and continue to fund him or should they cut him and focus on trying to develop the next best player they can acquire?
It’s certainly something under financial strain SA rugby unions will have to pay closer attention to. Money is tight but junior player development is crucial for the future. Backing the right players was tricky enough before but Unions generally always held the upper-hand in the relationship as they had the power to sign or cut players. Now youngsters could well be in the pound seats as their overseas options become more viable.