Will SA clubs survive the pandemic?
CLUB SURVIVAL: Like so many things in these pandemic times, the uncertainty about when club rugby will return lingers – and with it the concerns grow about what shape the game at club level will be in when it eventually does.
With amateur and schools rugby reportedly being discussed by SA Rugby on 8 February, more clarity on the road forward may become clear. A positive outcome seems unlikely with many factors pointing to an extension – including the fact that Covid-19 testing cannot be done at this level due to its cost.
There is a fatalistic but firm belief among clubs that there will be a fall-out of players with less returning to, or fewer newcomers taking up, the game after the pandemic. However, generally South African clubs are optimistic that there will be less disruption when the restrictions due to the Covid-19 pandemic are lifted than was until recently feared for.
We spoke to provincial administrators who guide club rugby in three of South Africa’s 14 unions.
Their concerns do of course remain. The loss of school-leaving players, not only the stars but of all levels of players, is one of the main uncertainties and could affect the quality of South African rugby generally over the medium term. There is also concern from administrators that the smaller (lower league) clubs may suffer in this regard.
And of course, almost all clubs are hard hit financially with costs continuing throughout the period of inactivity.
The general confidence at club level that the game will recover and that there will be relatively little fall-out of senior club players, was echoed by the five, extremely qualified rugby administrators who were asked for their view.
Kat Swanepoel, responsible for club rugby at Griquas, voiced his concerns specifically about the school leavers who may be lost to the game. “Many of them have already taken up or become interested in other hobbies or sport,” he said
In general, this vast union, the biggest in South Africa where clubs travel over 900 km (one way) for some of their matches, finances for the union and the clubs have always been a problem and have now become more so.
“The long distances, travelling costs and taking days off work to travel hundreds of kilometres for matches could after the long lay-off lead to players’ decision that the time spent on away matches and the costs do not warrant another year of rugby.”
Added to this uncertainty is the reality that many of the players have been financially hard hit by the lockdown of close on 11 months.
“However, we are confident that very few clubs, if any, will have to close down,” Swanepoel added. He did concede that some of the smaller (one-team) of Griquas’ 57 clubs may have problems to resurrect themselves but felt that they would eventually pull through.
Griquas CEO, Arni van Rooyen, was particularly concerned that there isn’t much to offer the players under present circumstances to look forward to at a practice.
“We have strictly stuck to the practice/training guidelines as set out by SA Rugby and there is no ball in play. There is also no organised group training at any of our clubs. I’m concerned that meeting up with old teammates is the highlight of their season, with no rugby or a ball while they are only individually working on physical fitness.”
The two Griquas administrators were confident that, in the union’s vast country districts and in the Northern Cape in general, there would not be a substantial loss of players as the game there was regarded as a community game, a way of spending your weekend.
This was unlikely to change, although the ever-worsening financial position of many of the supporters may have an influence on the smaller clubs.
The Lions’ General Manager for club rugby, Pieter Visser, is quite convinced and happy that the Pirates League clubs will be back in full force with most returning to the league, whenever that may be, with their usual number of teams.
“I think our Pirates League will be as strong in numbers as previously with the junior clubs’ teams probably having more players, better quality and more depth.”
Visser is especially upbeat about the expected retention of the number of junior teams, and even growth of the number of junior players about which he has a novel outlook. “Less junior or younger stars will probably be contracted by the universities’ Varsity Cup campaigns and their building for the future. There will probably be less bursaries and rugby contracts available from the institutions.
“Also, those students who otherwise would’ve studied with their own money or loans to catch a rugby scout’s eye, will probably not be able to do so.”
Visser is nevertheless concerned about the President League’s clubs and those playing second division rugby. With the lack of funding and on-going costs, some of them will have to virtually start rebuilding from scratch.
“For now, the clubs are only doing strength and conditioning at training. It is uncertain when we will return.”
The CEO of the Blue Bulls Rugby Union, Dr Eugene Hare, is rather upbeat about the future after restart of play following the lockdown.
“The union, U20s and the clubs have worked hard within the guidelines set by SA Rugby.
“The lay-off will have some influence on the numbers, but I foresee the full retention by the Carlton clubs of their first two sides, with some of them perhaps struggling to keep their third and/or fourth teams going.
“As far as juniors are concerned, our successes in the recent national junior leagues and our junior systems will draw the young players.” (The Bulls won the U21 Championship in 2019 and 2020 and their U19s won in 2019 with no competition played in 2020),
“We also have two academies in our club structure and two universities (Tuks and TUT) where young players can find a home.”
Indications are that even the very young players in the Blue Bulls union are keen for rugby to restart, says Hare. “The younger players are looking for a chance to play and a rugby home, and our youth clubs, especially, are keen to get going again.”
The situation in the Limpopo, sub-union of the BBRU, is also positive. “I’m rather excited about Limpopo. The interest to return to play is there, but I foresee that we will have to support some of the smaller clubs to get them back to full effectiveness.”