Front Row Grunt

Rugby … with cauliflower ears


Are all clubs created equal?

In his Sport24 column, Tank Lanning asks if the Community and Varsity Cup playing fields are level?

The Cape Town Tens has come and gone – and what a sensational event the 5th edition of what is now  a Cape Town institution turned out to be – so now we know the rugby season is a go, go, go.

The first round of the Varsity Cup has been played, with Pukke upsetting defending champs Tukkies, and the Community Cup – a new tournament that sees the country’s top open clubs go head to head in a four pool format – officially launched, the first fixtures taking place on the 16th of February.

Exciting times as the spotlight gets placed on the recently neglected heart and soul of rugby – club rugby. But with the bright lights come a few red flags …

In a very good initiative, Varsity Cup have made academics a priority by demanding that at least 18 out of the 23 players in the matchday squads be full-time students that have passed at least 30% of the subjects they studied the year before. And even the non-student players need to have passed Grade 12.

Now I know education standards are slipping, but being asked to pass just 30% of your courses, especially with only a few of them on the menu for a lot of the players, is not exactly being very demanding of the players.

Which brings me to my next red flag – the actual courses and their entrance requirements. Some of the varsities offer “Degree only” courses which come with tough entry requirements, more courses, and an annual pass rate a lot more substantial than just 30%, while other varsities offer diplomas or less which come with much lower entry requirements, fewer courses per year and just the Varsity Cup prescribed 30% pass rate.

Then throw in the age old professional bugbear – cold hard cash. While some varsities will have every single degree or diploma on offer oversubscribed, and thus not see the need to spend any marketing money on their flagship rugby side in order to attract students, others will throw a large portion of their sizeable marketing budget at the rugby club in order to attract “Students”. Some varsities offer bursaries only in terms of reimbursement, while others see that as par for the course, throwing in housing, a car and more than just pocket money as the deal decider.

As such, the playing fields are by no means level, leaving the organising committee with a very big call to make in the near future. Either allow basic professional rugby economics to play it’s course, meaning the varsities with the lowest academic barriers and biggest wallets will become “Super-Varsities”, or step in and regulate matters so as to keep all 8 varsities competitive.

The Community Cup will face similar challenges, obviously without the academic issues. But there is the potential for “Super Clubs” – clubs with cash – to dominate the tournament, perhaps even at the expense of club rugby in general.

I suppose the key question is should club rugby (be it open or academic) even be professional? Perhaps this is the tier of rugby that should remain amateur, aiming to retain some of those classic rugby traditions like post match fines, teams having a beer together after matches and trying to score tries rather than stick up kicks for the wings to chase?

Or is that the sole domain of the Cape Town Tens nowadays?

Author: Tank

Ex WP prop with a fair amount of experience in all things media ...


  1. As you well know Tank, the clubs that are able to pay players are able to attract top players and have bigger squads and therefore dominate club rugby. However, this is unsustainable. In the Cape, one hears that Hamiltons no longer pay players monthly salaries, only match fees. One hears along the rugby “grapevine” that Durbell struggle to pay their players as does SK Walmers. Look at a great club like Villigers. Lacking in finances, they were unable to attract top players, had a small squad and so when injuries occurred had to resort to players who were really of 2nd& 3rd team standard and are now relegated. They too have done away with any form of payment. The only thing that a player gets is the club blazer and tie. However, the “cancer” in club rugby lies in payment of salaries. A large number of players who played for Villigers last season have left, chasing a monthly salary from whoever. There is very little club committment these days in SA. That is the difference between club rugby in NZ and SA – when an AB holds the fern on his jersey, he knows he is also holding his club badge because with out the club, he would not be able to play for NZ.

    • Great comment thanks Neil, and you are so right. Hence my warning re the creation of these “Super Clubs” … I also think they way our school rugby is structured also leads to these guys having false expectations re making a career out of rugby, and they chase cash from the get go, rather than “Paying their dues”. Very difficult thing to change now, but SARU need to step in …

  2. Tank. Very good article to get thinking about this.

    Varsity Cup seems like it could become a mirror of the US College Football system. The point is that it should be an environment for players who are not the next Etzabeth or Burger, to mature and grow yet play rugby in a very professional environment, where the best are groomed for a potential shot at professional rugby after 3-4 years.

    Definitely it should be regulated 1) to give a different rugby ‘flavour’ to the spectator to watch and 2) to benefit the players and students and 3) for the betterment of the quality and diversity of SA rugby (transformation goals etc).

    I could go on, but the most important aspect of this would be an uncorrupted professional leadership at the top.

    • Shot Mev … Yes that US College football system is incredible, and it is what the VC guys based their product on initially. Perhaps salary caps or reimbursment only via bursaries, money given to varsities who do not get it from their own institutions, a draft of sorts, and development money from the province that does contract the player after VC?

  3. Good article Tank! I agree with you 100%