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Reality bites for unskilled generation

Just 30 of South Africa's vast number of professional players will be able to sustain some sort of a living after they stop playing the game.

This is the reality of the situation facing about 600 contracted (or so-called professional) players in the country.

For the rest there is the stark reality that unless they have alternative qualifications – and only a very small percentage do – they face almost certain unemployment.

Ross van Reenen, a Currie Cup winner and veteran of more than 60 games for the Free State in the amateur era, has made these startling revelations in his recently released book 'FROM LOCKER ROOM TO BOARDROOM'.

In an exclusive interview with this website, Van Reenen explained the rationale behind the revelatory book that addresses what can only be describe as a looming crisis.

One of the most significant facts to come out of the book is that less than five percent of the players will be able to sustain a living on what they earn in the sport.

It is even more alarming when compared to how much better qualified their counterparts in New Zealand and Australia are.

Van Reenen is backed up in his views by 30 of the country's most high-profile former players – men like Francois Pienaar, Ockie Oosthuizen, Gary Teichmann, Louis Luyt, Jannie Engelbrecht, Kevin de Klerk, Harry Viljoen, Jan Pickard, JO de Villiers and Kobus Wiese, to name but a few.

Those men, who mostly started or played in the amateur era, are all well-established and well-off businessmen in their own right. They were able to use their high profiles to secure a life after rugby.

As Van Reenen rightly points out, there is this misconception that rugby players in South Africa earn millions, but nothing could be further from the truth.

As it is, most of the modern professionals in South Africa appear to be oblivious of what is awaiting them after they retire from the sport.

This is captured in a survey which compares the professional players from South Africa, New Zealand and Australia.

"One of the big issues, if you look at it, is that 76 percent of the players in Australia retire as graduates [according to the most recent survey]," Van Reenen told this website.

"Of those, 84 percent of those are in a preferred occupation.

"In New Zealand 90 percent are working on some or other qualification, where about 84 percent of them will complete that qualification.

"However, only 4.78 percent of our [South African] players can – for a period of three years or longer – look after themselves, where they do not have to generate alternative incomes.

"If you look at that percentage and you take the figure of 600 [supposed professional players, or contracted players in SA] it gives you just 30 players … basically the top players contracted by SA Rugby, mostly those that have Springbok contracts.

"There are another 12 percent that are 'okay'," he continued.

"As I say in the book, more than 84 percent of South Africa's players will have a big problem the day they stop playing, there is no doubt about that.

"Our players are simply not prepared for life after rugby."

This is backed up by the many former player Van Reenen interviewed for his book.

Golden Lions Rugby Union President Kevin de Klerk, a Springbok lock from the 1970s and a well-respected businessman, lamented the fact that so many players do not acquire any business skills during their careers.

"I have seen so many destitute rugby players who were wonderful heroes on the rugby field, but once they stop playing they have no means of generating income to support their families," De Klerk said in the book, From locker room to boardroom.

"This is very sad and breaks my heart," De Klerk added.

Mike Jennings, a member of the ill-fated 1969/70 demo tour to the United Kingdom and Ireland, retired from rugby at a relatively young age because, as he said in the book, he realised very early in life that "rugby offered limited opportunities" in the amateur era and he needed to establish a career.

"I am concerned about the professional players in the modern era," Jennings said.

"I think they live in an artificial world thinking that this is what life is all about, only to get a wake-up call one day and realise they are totally unprepared for the real challenges of life when their rugby career is over.

"The lack of business skills acquired during players' professional rugby careers needs to be addressed urgently."

Ockie Oosthuizen, a Springbok prop of the 1980's and a member of the infamous 1981 tour and flour-bomb Test in New Zealand, also feels strongly about the looming crisis.

He said it is imperative for young players to study something at an early age; to go into life with some qualification.

Corne Krige, a Springbok captain of the Bok team at the failed 2003 World Cup in Australia, probably had the most veracious comments on the situation.

"The money earned from professional rugby is the easiest money a rugby player will ever earn in his entire life," Krige said in a quote contained as part of the book and taken from Krige's autobiography The Right Place at the Wrong Time.

Legendary Bok fullback HO de Villiers, who played in 14 Tests between 1967 and 1970 before his career was cut short by injury, holds himself up as an example of why professional players are so much at risk today.

"My case is just one of many that serve as an example to young rugby players today," he told Van Reenen, a quote contained in the book.

"I thought rugby was my life but when I was injured I looked around and saw that I had absolutely nothing."

He was faced with the stark reality that he now had to go out and find a job.

De Villiers, at the time, had no skills, no university education and no idea what he was going to do.

According to Van Heerden, this will be the plight of many of today's professional players if something drastic is not done about the looming crisis.

By Jan de Koning

* In Part Two of our exclusive interview with Ross van Reenen, and the ongoing review if his book, we look at how little some players and teams really earn and how desperate the situation is. Later we will also look at what the experts suggest what solutions there are and what the role of SARU and the provincial unions should be.

* EDITOR'S FOOTNOTE: To say that this book was an 'eye-opener' would be an understatement. The plight facing professional players is far more dire than the flashy headlines that proclaim their accomplishments on the field. However, I feel this could be a valuable tool to all players, even those at international level, as it could be used as a manual for life. With sage advice from 30 of the country's foremost former players – all high-profile figures that have gone on to establish themselves in the business world after rugby – there is enough for even non players to take from the book. In my opinion, a MUST READ!


Converting rugby talent into business success

Ross van Reenen

Zebra Press/Random House Struik


ISBN 978-177022-331-8


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