Congrats to the Bulls. In the wake of news that the under-19 national championship had been scrapped at the end of 2018, the Bulls proactively forged ahead and looked to have come up with a potentially meaningful substitute modelled on the KZN under-20 club rugby structure that has been in place and of benefit to the Sharks for years now.
Seven leading Pretoria club teams will participate in the inaugural Volcano u20 Club League.
The term “strength versus strength” was put out at the press conference and given a shot in the arm by stating that contracted junior Bulls players would play in the league alongside uncontracted players.
The Bulls have become known for generously giving out plenty of junior contracts the best part of this decade. They currently have over 50 such junior players on their books. It sounded as if this will be the last year that the Loftus based entity has that many paid junior players though. For the neutral and probably even more so for their own Bulls fans, the return on investment for junior contracts has been less than satisfactory. By the Union’s own admission, in signing so many contracts and then providing so few actual rugby match playing opportunities, they did a lot of promising youngsters a disservice in the past. Millions of Rands was also flushed down the toilet in the process.
Contrast this to the Sharks’ who aided by their self-sufficient Sharks Academy, were able to get away with providing very few contacts and incentivising the majority of club rugby youngsters to go out and play themselves into a Sharks under-19 Currie Cup jersey later on in any given season. The Kings Park junior rugby trophy cabinet collected dust but all other goals were achieved. It kept club rugby going and more often than not, the Sharks under-19s were competitive and over a longer term the Sharks were able to develop players for senior rugby at a far higher contracting conversion rate and off a much lower cost base than the Bulls.
In 2019 the Bulls management are effectively placing their union in a prime position now to cut costs and even grow their player pool if they can dedicate the time and effort to nurture this under-20 club rugby project correctly.
Economics more than anything else have forced the Unions to rethink how they do business. Tough times have descended on the Sharks Academy and even the once great WPRI seem to have seen better days. The Bulls initiative is good but it might have been better. When one talks “strength versus strength”, how good would it have been to have an under-20 club league that incorporated the Lions and the Leopards (NWU) who are strong in this age-group segment as well. Travel costs are a big expense item issue. No one else in this land is blessed to have quality rivals on their doorstep. It’s something that the three Northern Unions need to work together to take advantage of.
Anyways the one interesting point with regards to the contracted players is how best to distribute them amongst the clubs. Hence the title of Capitalism vs Socialism!
I asked a handful of officials who had or still play significant parts on the KZN club rugby scheme about which approach was best because along the way both ways have been tried in the province. The question boils down to: is it better to spread the players evenly amongst the clubs or better to allow those clubs with the means to attract the better players and reap the benefits. The topic resulted in some experienced heads sharing useful bits of information. These were some of the goodies I got out of it:
1. Contracted players are great but they had the potential to have a negative impact in that the Union withdraws them for part of the week and/or for the crucial part of the season. So come the business end, the club to be completed it with promoted B-team players who were not afforded A-team experience earlier in the campaign.
2. Two year continuity with contracted players is of important. In an under-20 league non-contracted players are often available for two seasons which helps a lot to build team culture and momentum.
3. A club can go out of its way to recruit and contract good non-union contracted players, only to lose the top performers to the u21 provincial championship later in the season.
4. It’s important to have happy players so give them a choice on where they want to play. Offer guidance but don’t make the decision for them. If they are being paid well by the Union, then by all means dictate terms to them otherwise realise that the drop-out rate is high. Rather have a happy player than no player at all.
5. Travel is an issue that has to be taken into consideration. The distance between a player’s home/work/place of study to his club.
6. Often the best coaches are at the top clubs. These clubs are well organised and well run. They will do more for the players. That keeps rival clubs needing to up their standards to attract better players. It is good for the system.
7. When players were drafted out to the clubs, a number of clubs sat on their backsides and just expected to have sides. They abused the system. Clubs need to be encouraged to keep working hard!
8. Clubs that do not have money are not necessarily bad clubs. It’s how much they care that defines whether a club is a good club or a bad club.
9. It is just as important to help weaker clubs with coaches as it is to provide them with good players. There needs to be a minimum high standard of expertise at every club.
10. Try to add incentives to the draft system like incorporating a points system. E.g. the club that finishes first picks first for the next season and each player drafted is assigned a points value.
11. When your talent is spread evenly it definitely promotes strength versus strength and is therefore better for overall player development.
12. Club level does not have to be the one down from provincial level. It’s possible to allow club rugby to feed into a higher tier or even trial teams later in the season, which forms the link to provincial caps.