Better rugby, better player retention?

For the early birds, a sneak preview of Tank’s column that will be published on Sport24 later this morning …

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Tank Lanning

As part of the prize giving at a Stormers golf day I MC’d in aid of the Chris Burger Fund earlier this year, I had the privilege of interviewing skipper Jean de Villiers.

To much consternation from the WPRU administrators and coaches in the audience, I cheekily asked De Villiers if the only thing the Stormers had been practicing at their Belville base was the rolling maul.

The skipper, one of the true gentleman of the game, and now also deservedly at the helm in Green and Gold, took the question on the chin. He gave an honest an insightful answer suggesting a horses for courses approach was in place, saying that when the time for a more adventurous game plan was called for, they would hall it out.

Sadly, we are still waiting …

Not normally a bunch to call a spade a spade, given their partnership with SARU and concerns re TV rights, my colleagues at SuperSport were pretty honest about the Stormers in their Super Rugby WRAP this week, asking what it would say about the tournament as a whole if the “flair-less” Stormers turn out to be the overall leaders at the end of league play? Not much according them, given that “The game itself has degenerated into an adventure-less, defence-dominated bore-fest”.

Strong stuff, but pretty fair given that the Stormers have not scored a single 4 try bonus point, scored 20 less tries than their closest conference rivals the Bulls, and only one more than the lowest-ranked Lions!

This in the month that it was announced that young Baby Bok sensation Handre Pollard, still at school and playing for WP in next week’s Craven Week, will be leaving WP to take up a contract with the Bulls next year, and that Quin Roux and Danie Poolman will be heading to Ireland after the Super15. Throw in names like Nic Fenton-Wells, Johann Sadie, Tim Whitehead, JJ Engelbrecht, Jacque Fourie and Francois Hougaard, all of whom have meandered off to pastures greener, and one can understand the uproar from Western Cape rugby fans.

But does the fault lie only with the WPRU administration? Is it because the talent identification and retention strategy is not up to scratch? Do WP just produce more talent than they can handle? Or is it perhaps because they play crap rugby?

Players leave not only for financial reasons, but because they like a specific coach, like a specific game plan, get treated well by a player liaison, or just want to get some actual game time …

Having looked into them at some depth, I am of the belief that the necessary structures are in place in the Western Cape. The Elite Squads at the School of Excellence, the WP Institute, and the High Performance Centre in Belville are impressive entities, and the instruction offered, both in terms of rugby and life skills, is second to none.

It’s perhaps on the human front that WP might be lacking … Having advertised the post of High Performance Manager earlier in the year, a role aimed at handling the off field player administration void left through Rassie Erasmus’s departure, including all negotiations with both players and player-agents, I am told that it was never filled.

Which seems crazy in this professional era …

And having spoken to several coaches at the union, the concern has never been about the actual structures, but more about the human capital entering said structures. And their hope was that the High Performance Manager, while obviously aiming to make a professional players life at the union more enjoyable and rewarding, would help in identifying, and thus improving, the level of talent entering the structures.

It seems this role is now being shared amongst the coaches and administration, and perhaps this creates more of a sieve like structure rather than the bedrock players seak?

But in the professional era, player movement – between club, province, and country – will happen. At least here in SA, it’s about finding ways to keep local talent, unlike in Ireland where clubs are fighting for ways to be able to contract more foreigners while the national body is trying to enforce laws to make clubs sign local players …

But I am pretty sure that playing a more entertaining brand of rugby would help WP and the Stormers hold onto a few more of their players. After all, it’s not always about money.


  1. A very good article, Tank, but it really only scratches the surface. I’d like to see you explore the whole issue of career paths in professional rugby and what influences players around the world. It can’t be just money – if it was then Bryan Habana would be in France.

    You misrepesent the Irish situation. They are trying to find a way to be competitive in both Heineken Cup (via provincial franchises, not clubs btw) as well as internationally and are still deciding what compromises need to be made.

    There are things like the vast amount of travel in Super Rugby and the Tri Nations (Rugby Championship). Contrast that with Ruan Pienaar going all the way to the final with Ulster and never making a single trip that amounted to much more than a weekend. In terms of money, SA Rugby is middle income (turnover of R600M) along with Ireland (€70M = R720M), Wales (£54M = R690M), New Zealand (NZ$93M = R600M) and Australia (A$69M = R580M). Although not in the same class as England (£136M = R1740M) or France. Are the salaries for juniors, average, seniors and stars really so different? If so, why? Is it only the Springbok contracted players who get big money, or are we spreading the money too thinly over provinces like Border and Griffons to give the appearance of “professionalism”?

    Now that you are independent, you should use that freedom to tackle the issues that the other journalists have to swerve around.

  2. A very good article Tank. Just one thing on WP and the type of rugby they are playing and I say this to you and the Supersport crowd:

    They might have scored no 4 try bonus points and have scored 20 tries less than the Bulls, but they are winning. In todays world that is all that counts. What does it help to score 45 tries in a season and you still dont win the title. The Bulls might score tries at will but the opposition also scores tries at will against them. Since when has rugby become a sport only about attack? Defence is still a crutial part of the game.

    Yes I do like a good game of running rugby with tries being scored, but you need to work for those tries. The Stormers are making teams work for tries. They have the 4th highest points difference and this says a lot about defence and discipline.

  3. Tank, another very well penned article. I read houwing’s article on news24 and some of the subsequent comments by “fans”. Unfortunately these comments are as always based on no knowledge of the actual situations that they maybe commenting on. WP over the last number of years have paid huge sums of money to players(some justified some not) – this has been no different to the other franchises which is why not one of these franchises are flush with money these days(its not only the Lions) – to be more specific they have top heavy salary bills which has meant smaller amounts left for so called junior players. Contracted squads have been cut in some instances by 50% in the last 12months mainly at the junior end, therefore not everyone is going to be able to be signed by their home franchise and so some may slip through the net. People must not get the impression that Pollard for eg has gone to the Bulls on a huge contract – it is a very average contract and in my opinion the wrong decision, just as you have stated regarding Sadie, Englebrecht, Hoffmann to name but a few. Quinn has also made a poor decision unless he has intentions of qualifying for Ireland. What so many crtics do not realise is that this time last year Pollard was No 4 as far as fly halves go (SA U20’s) – up to Johan Goosens injury he was No 3 and then only did he move up to No2 – if Jantjies had had even a resemblance of an average game against Ireland he would have remained as the No1 choice for the SA U20’s, despite that IMO he is a pathetic 10. WP have a very healthy system with the best rugby institute in the world whose program is sort after by franchises outside of SA. WP fans need to see how many are at that institute from outside the province (Watch the WP U19 side this season).
    Personally I could not fault Rob Wagner’s response to the unjustified criticism that came his way – his responses were based on fact.

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