Bulls showing SA the way?

Out of the Currie Cup, yet showing SA they way? Has Tank Lanning finally lost his marbles? Perhaps, but take a look at his latest Sport24 column for the reasons he likes the Bulls player contracting strategy.

Imagine being one of the WP, Sharks or Lions U21 coaches right now … No doubt on a high after getting their sides into this weekend’s tournament semi-finals, their return to earth would have been pretty damn swift upon seeing the likes of lock Paul Willemse, flank Jacques du Plessis, flyhalf Handré Pollard and centre Jan Serfontein in the Bulls team sheet for the playoffs!

The Blue Bulls’ exit from the Currie Cup real deal will have hurt the proud Pretoria union, and tarnished coach Pine Pienaar’s reputation, but obviously comes as a welcome bonus for U21 coach Nollis Marais.

And provides further proof of the Bulls big call to build for the future through contracting younger players, rather than “Quick fix” journeyman to plug the holes left by the departure of a raft of senior stalwarts.

Not only are the four above mentioned players still U21, Pollard and Du Plessis are still U19! And the fact that the Bulls managed to get both their U19 and U21 sides into the semi-finals this weekend, even while utilising youngsters such as these four to play for the Currie Cup side, says a lot about the depth they are developing in Pretoria.

It is a slightly risky strategy in the professional era, given that player loyalty is only as deep as the next pay check, but I like it. Economic reality is biting hard in South Africa (and round the world, even if France and Japan are bucking the trend, but even those pockets will dry up at some stage), and the days of handing out R4 million a year contracts willy-nilly to so called “Marquee” players are gone.

I have long said that rugby is writing cheques it simply cannot cash, both in terms of massive payments to big name players, but also in terms of the sheer amount of professional players on the various union’s books. It is unsustainable, hence the recent Lions financial fiasco, and the fact that every single small union in South Africa would be bankrupt were it not for the annual pay-out they get from SARU.

So given that we will never be able to match the offers made to players from overseas based clubs (that poor Rand of ours is taking a worse beating than the Limpopo Bulls took in the Vodacom Cup), we need to come up with a different strategy. One would be to curb the internal spending wasted on keeping all these smaller unions alive, and the other is to develop a culture that makes players want to stay.

And that is what I like about the Bulls strategy. Rather than bring in a big name, big salary, lock from another province to replace the likes of Matfield, Botha and Rossouw, rather nurture a young guy like Willemse (even though he did sneak off to the Lions for a season or two) in an environment that looks to build a family like culture where players feel welcome, looked after, and happy.

In his book, Victor Matfield made several references to the family like culture of the Bulls while he was there … John Smit has been very open about the amazing culture developed at Saracens (albeit with several South African players) and his want to develop something similar at the Sharks … Down at UCT, it is something we work very hard on given that we just do not have the cash that some other universities have …

As said, it may be a bit of a pipe dream in the professional era, but with the monopoly money fast running out, I truly believe that culture, gees, spirit, vibe … Call it what you want … treating players like assets and not commodities, and in return, demanding respect and performance … Will play a big role in where players decide to play their rugby.


  1. The management of players is the key: if you play elite rugby and then get rested to prolong your career then that’s where you will go. If, as a youngster, you know that the more senior player is not going to bump you to the bench the moment he is back from Bok duty, then you will want to play there.

    Salaries are not going to go down, playing schedules are not going to decrease, squad sizes neither. The challenge for the IRB is to grow all forms of the game to a level where the TV revenues exceed squad expenses and at this they are failing badly.

  2. Four excellent players, but they are part of a HUGE list of contracted players that provinces carry for Currie Cup, Vodacom Cup, U21 and U19 competitions. I’m not even going to start on the Currie Cup 1st Division.

    It’s not the weak rand, there is as much money in SA rugby as Ireland, Wales and Australia. The difference is that those countries use it to fund 4 or 5 professional squads. SA uses it to fund about 20. Let’s not be surprised that those three countries have gained SA players at better salaries. It’s no use pointing to the French, they are in a league of their own but if they and Japan are the only ones paying mega salaries then the situation is at least manageable for the others. Wales are suffering right now too, but at least they know there is a limit to how many the French league can absorb. In SA’s case, ALL foreign leagues are in competition for our players.

    The Bulls hit the buffers when they offered reduced contracts to some senior players. Where has all the money gone? it’s gone to all those U19 and U21 youngsters you were talking about. The other major provinces must be close to the same experience. All that waving of big cheque books before a player has even played Craven Week is now coming home to roost.

  3. Tank IMO the Currie Cup side has to take preference above the age group teams. It is great having some Junior World Cup players in your U/21 side but it came at a cost to the Bulls: IMO they decided to sign new youngsters and / or to extend the contracted players’ (mostly younger ones) contracts but forgot to keep some more experienced players. Apparently many were told to take a huge price cut or leave. I don’t think that is the correct way of going about your business.
    You have to recruit young players but the amounts that these guys are offered are huge. The bottom line is you need experienced players as well.

    I know Heyneke Meyer did the same when he started at the Bulls but at the time the Bulls didn’t have enough senior players left. Therefore he had no choice but to build a new side.

    The current contracted players are far too young IMHO…..to think of a Bulls’ side missing out on semi-finals is almost unheard of and that is the price they had to pay for letting the senior guys go (I know this is perhaps a too simplistic view but those are my thoughts)

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