Treat players like assets

A sneak preview to Grunt subscribers of the column written by Tank Lanning for Sport24 today – on the art of managing players. A slightly acedemic look at things given that rugby is a business after all …

Tank Lanning

Art to asset management – Sounds like a start to pesky finance column does it not? But as you reach for the “Roll away tackler” button on your browser, not wanting to be reminded again by some personal finance freak that you have not put away enough to live your life when the zymmer frame replaces golf clubs, let me tell you that this is indeed a rugby column!
As we ease into our first mid Super Rugby Test series – with a new Bok coach and captain, and as the discussion heats up regarding what the Kings should be, and how they should be accommodated next year, perhaps it is worth taking some time out to touch on the foundation of any sport – the players, or as I like to call them, the assets.

Simply put, professional rugby is about acquiring, nurturing, training, and then either keeping or disposing of said assets. It may sound impersonal and rather callous, but rugby is no longer about roughing and toughing it out on a Sunday afternoon so you can earn the right to have a few beers with the fellow you punched just before half time … It’s a multi million Rand business that competes for our hard earned disposable entertainment sheckles in a seriously tough financial climate.

And there is still plenty of space for the personal touch in the nurturing, training, and keeping phase of said asset management process. Take a look at what John Dobson has done with the UCT Ikeys and WP Vodacom side … It does not come much more personal than that. And both Peter de Villiers and Heyneke Meyer have well documented strengths on that front.

But the acquisition and disposing of said assets requires the hanky to be put away, and the business heads to be invoked? Acquisition obviously includes scouting schoolboy rugby tournaments in order to get the young talent into the necessary academies and institutes so as to start the nurturing and training phases. But it also involves knowing exactly what assets might be lacking, and thus topping up said stocks with assets either in the market, or more importantly, soon to enter the market.

Enter the player agent … But that is a topic for a different column …

But that does bring me to perhaps the most contentious, and possibly most important, phase of this process – when to dispose of assets? Obviously this call is not always the union’s to make as players have minds and needs of their own. But even then, there are repercussions and decisions to be made.

Unions work within finite budgets (well in most cases, especially those keen to remain a going concern), so big calls need to be made … Calls sometimes not particularly popular with the fans. Disposing of an expensive player might allow you to sign four talented youngsters. But giving up four youngsters to other unions might allow you the chance to sign a “Bums on seats” proven game changer. Knowing the environment and striking the balance is an art, and takes skill.

How will having a 6th franchise in SA change the available talent pool? Will the Kings use only local talent or try contract from other SA sides? What role should club rugby be playing in talent spotting and nurturing? Should the franchise partner with smaller unions making up said franchise? What would happen if SARU followed New Zealand and implemented central contracting? Do we really want a player demanding a start and business class seats? How much money should be left in the kitty to handle a Stormers like loose forward injury crisis? Do we contract players who can win a Vodacom Cup, but not take the step up to Super Rugby?

Enter the “Director of rugby” or “High Performance Manager”, roles not particularly well defined as yet. A Director of Rugby is superfluous to my mind, and creates reporting confusion. Keep it simple – The head coach runs the show inside the four white lines – nurturing and training, while the High Performance Manager handles all player affairs outside the four white lines – acquisition and disposal.

And if both are skilled at their jobs, have very thick skins, and play a part in the keeping of players, the asset management process becomes an art rather than a guessing game.

The above was written for, and published on Sport24 on the 31st of May 2011

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