Time to follow the College Football route?

With news surfacing of a Varsity Cup team again being accused of cheating, Tank Lanning, in his Sport24 column, believes the tournament needs to make a call re it being amateur or professional.

Oh what to do with the Varsity Cup?

News surfacing this week is that a very prominent Varsity Cup side is again in the dock, having been accused of cheating on student numbers in every game this season. It is alleged that the side accused of cheating are angling for some sort of plea bargain that will see them docked just 5 log points from a single game, but at least one advocate suggests that there is precedent from overseas leagues where all points are docked from a team for each transgression.

It remains to be seen as to how public the Varsity Cup management will go with this.

With other stories surfacing about players not even knowing what they are supposed to be studying and being paid in the region of R 20 000.00 per month, open club players being farmed out to Varsity Cup sides for the tournament before returning to their original club, none of the players of the tournament nominees last year being a student, one player seeking a transfer thinking that his course was a correspondence course given that he was not required to attend lectures, the tournament has quite clearly arrived at a watershed moment.

Based on comments posted on a previous column on the Varsity Cup, it is fairly clear that the general public does not really care that much. It just being a good opportunity to watch some rugby on a Monday night and have a really good party should you be a student with lectures not worth attending on a Tuesday. And for that, the Varsity Cup organisers must be commended. It is a slickly run tournament that has truly livened up, and enriched, the rugby season. Hell, I love either getting up to my Alma Mater or denting the couch on Monday evenings!

And perhaps we should just let it evolve into a semi professional tournament and see what pans out …

The truth is, though, that professional rugby (even at U20 level) is very difficult to combine with genuine study given the demands of the unions – so it is not really possible to have elite and student rugby in the same breath in SA (except for a small and exceptional minority). So you either have student rugby (like in the US with college football – with some of its problems – where the priority is less the absolute standard of the play than the evenness of the competition and only around 5% of division 1 college players go onto the NFL) or you have the farce we have in SA.

In reality, no club or varsity (even with the Varsity and Community Cup tournaments) is remotely commercially viable and thus survives on university marketing budget or the largess of a single or few benefactors. Again the reverse of the US where the top colleges are very focussed on keeping costs down (limiting the number of scholarships available and the amount that can be spent to academic fees and board and lodging) so the revenues can fund both other sports and the general university coffers.

Here we are going down the road of the B section Currie cup teams who spend themselves into insolvency. A much better model is the second tier provinces in New Zealand where the unions have recognised the danger (via the bankruptcy of Otago) and voluntarily agreed to salary caps and  limiting the number of professionals etc.  The standard is still high, the level of competition exceptional, but 90% of players study or work, and don’t confuse rugby with a career.  The route is still open for those few who are good enough to be noticed and move on but it is not the primary option and the players are better served as a consequence.

So if you want to be pro rugby player (Prof Tim Noakes suggests that just 0.4% of sport playing schoolboys go on to make a career of it), you go to a provincial academy and try play age group rugby … Or you focus on your career and studies while still being able to play a relatively good standard of rugby with likeminded people.

And if the amateur community rugby structures surrounding the latter (such as the Varsity and Community Cups) bring in some money, then that money is put it toward the structures responsible for creating that environment.


  1. Hi Tank, Thanks for the great article/post. NO ! resoundign no to professional varsity cup ! I think there are enough avenues for professional players so why let varsity cup get hijacked ? There is enough talent in many of the varsities to sustain a good quality of rugby without these players. The small percentage of success stories from a non professional system – ie players progressing to provincial level would create a last chance for late developers and some truly good stories. I really hope the universities responsible will be named and shamed. Take all the points ! Well of course hoping that it is not Maties – but even then I wouldn’t feel any different. There is a good part knowing that these players may have rushed from a test to practice just to be part of the team – it creates some nostalgia about a bygone era. Thanks for the great blog. Proudly Matie !

    1. Much appreciated. I am also leaning strongly toward community rugby remaining amateur.

  2. Hi Tank

    Some good ideas you bandy about, and it is truly sad that what started as a novel concept has been (once again) turned into a monster through the pressures of winning and success.
    As someone who has been involved in that set-up not too long ago, I know of the vast amounts of money these ‘students’ are making. And the sad truth is that while these payments are labelled as ‘bursaries’ – and show as such on the university records, these are in the form of cash payments into student accounts, which can then be withdrawn at the end of the season (so no money into bank accounts, which makes regulating this much tougher).
    And while I have no problem with these lads being paid – it was happening before Varsity Cup even – the process should be made transparent.
    Non-students playing the game has forever been a problem, and will remain until a severe penalty (like a full points deduction) is given to a transgressing team. Even a former champion side was bold enough to play a 9th non-student player in a FINAL, with the “academics comes first” praching vice-chancellor giving in to the pressures of success and signing the team sheet off.
    It is a vicious game, and it needs to be put an end too.

    1. Shot Bonty. Yes, as they say in the classics “Nothing like a hanging in the morning to keep the mind focussed” … VC need to draw a line in the sand and make a public and big call …

  3. A wonderful tournament turning into a nightmare. You have one varsity getting a massive financial injection from the University and aid from the professional franchise – you have another varsity where the players register for a particular diploma whereby they hardly have to attend any lectures if any at all and are classified as bona fide students. Then you have the ludicrous ruling that states even if you did not play for a particular varsity one year but attended that varsity that same year, you cannot play for any other varsity the following year.
    One has to admire Maties – they get very little support from the University and nothing from the Franchise so are in no position to make huge financial offers – lose a high percentage of players each year, yet are competetive each competition. This year is no exception – not a great squad but through guts and determination have not lost to date.

  4. It is great to read this a few days after I watched the 30 on 30 doccie on The University of Miami and why the rules exist for College Football. To get a professional league at this level would be silly. It would not be sustainable and would just create longterm economic problems for most teams and universities. I think one of the problems with todays’s professional players is that most of them have never done any studying before in their lives and even in school was fast-tracked with a big contract beckoning (Handre Pollard). This means that these players are not equipped to handle anything that comes their way if they have a sudden catastrophic injury. There is only so many marketing manager positions available at big insurance firms afteral. Where I do like the NFL system is that they have a minimum draft age of 3 years after high-school, or 21. If we can keep our players away from pure professional football until then I would applaud the move. Keep them honest. Even do away with the dreadfull u21 Presidents cup nonsense (no-one watches it!), plow those players back into the club system, a system that no also get some tv time and the players time to shine, and get the players to grow up mentally and physically before they become pro’s. At the least it would make for better halftime interviews (although i wont hold my breath.)
    How many of the current springboks have degrees? 2 that i can remember and that is the Du Plessis brothers. Get them to study. It will do our rugby a world of good to get some intelligent players out there that’s not openly proud of only reading one book in his whole life (fingers pointing to Heschelle Gibbs)

  5. did anyone notice that studying apparently makes the players meaner and dirtier. Especially Medicine. The three most recent MD that have had bok colours are Uli KHow-does-my-knee-taste Schmidt, Brendan I-didnt-see-his-big-blue-head-under-my-boot Venter and Jannie How-about-a-close-inspection-of-my-knuckle Du Plessis. Is it something the medical schools do to them? Does it come from cutting up cadavers?

  6. Is the term “student” adequately explained and defined under the present set-up? Once you have this term fully laid out with all its parameters of what’s permitted and what’s not, then the rest should be fairly simple. Or am I over-simplifying things??

  7. Hi Tank, yes what a mess. I was just discussing the same issue the past weekend at a high school rugby meet with some likeminded rugby fans. If Varsity rugby continues on this road of paying for so called “Unprofessional” players the talented school boys going to varsity and wanting to play a bit of rugby, while concentrating on studies and their career will never be considered for the team. There goes the whole idea of Varsity rugby out the window.

    Also thanks for your great articles and good luck on your picks for the weekend!!

  8. Hey Tank.
    Good article.
    Am a huge fan of the NCAA system in the US.
    Yes – its got issues. But ultimately they deliver real Student Athletes.
    for the kids not making it to pro sport (remember NCAA is not only College Football, but all sport) will end with a topclass degree. You are not aloud to compete if you don’t have a GPA that equates to 60% avg.
    Lastly – while few make it to the NFL, the NFL drafts almost exclusively from the NCAA College Football league. You don’t just step into an NFL team after high school, or join a Franchise academy. You go play College Football. you might not be smart enough to hit a NCAA league team – but their are Colleges that compete.
    You can then enter the “combine” and show your stuff. But a Franchise won’t draft you out of no school and just on “combine” results.
    I truly believe a kid coming out of 4 years of topnotch College Football is better equipt to handle the “personal” pressure of going pro.
    Am a Florida Gator fan……with a soft spot for Notre Dame (only because of Rudi). The Swamp in Gainsville seats 90k people and have been sold out every home game since the 1980’s. Places like Tuscaloosa Alabama, Baton Rouge in Louisiana are the same. I believe it will be in the interest of our young fringe players to rather have a NCAA system. At least those who don’t make it as a pro – end with some form of education….and thus a future.
    Just my opinion
    PS: am a Shimlas fan (played UFS in 90s) – seeing us struggle is a bitter pil to swollow:-)

  9. Tackler, you have nailed the core “headache” – unfortunately it is not that simple, although it should be. Those who run this competition have dug big holes for themselves. It all started on a slippery slope about 3 seasons back when one particular varsity received a huge cash injection and were able to “buy” a very strong squad plus being aided by the local franchise. As is the case with so much of SA sport, politics also plays a negative role.

  10. This story needs a lot more determined investigation and exposure. Well done, Tank, for giving it a kickstart in an open forum. There can be nothing worse for both competitors and spectators than to participate/ watch and then find that the result is a fraud because of cheating. The rules of VCup are very straight forward (as on its website) – teams that cheat because they have professional rugby players masquerading as students should be heavily penalised, even relegated. This kind of team-cheating is exactly in the same mould as Lance Armstrong’s drugs-cheating, or certain KZN schools fielding all those over-age rugby players last year, or all those 18 year-old players selected for the national u16 soccer team a while back. Two teams in last year’s VCup Competition were fingered for these transgressions but nothing was done (except to keep it all very quiet). Seems a whole lot worse this year. Hope the media doesn’t drop this until it gets resolved – will be a pity to see the VC get swallowed up into a grave of quasi-professional nothingness!”

  11. Huge fan of NCAA Football/Basketball and all American sports. Disagree on quite a lot that has been said here. The NCAA system is very broken and leans itself to a lot of cheating and dishonest recruiting. Ask anyone that knows anything about College sports and ask them John Calipari recruits players for the University of Kentucky basketball team and they will tell you, he pays them(read gets Boosters to pay them). So 18 year old boys learn to cheat from Day 1. Read up on Reggie Bush, yes he dated a Kardashian, but he had all his records scrapped and his Heisman Trophy taken away because he too took money and other gifts to play at USC. The NCAA system also brings up a question where a 19 year old player is not allowed to make money playing his sport but any other one can doing a different job. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vTi__l7San8 The player in this link is considering not playing this year at all cause he will be the top pick in the draft and he does not want to risk injury and thus losing out on about $25m.

    Tank you also mention that the top varsities limit the number of scholarships in order to keep the costs down. Every top college team uses the max number of scholarships they can and if you ask any coach if he would like 5 or 10 more he would say yes in a heart beat. There is nothing about the top NCAA football programs that makes you believe they try to save money. They spend millions on coaching staff and recruiting year in and year out.

    My point being, the NCAA system acts as a wonderful cover up for more or less the same thing that happens in SA and until they dont punish the offending teams properly any system that will be put in place will be a waste of time.

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