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OPINION: 'We still have our L-plates on'

The flight back to South Africa gave me time to reflect on a pretty intense couple of days and believe me, I’ve had a few over the years.

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Now, there are so many versions of our Northampton sojourn doing the rounds. What I will say is this. It’s early days. We have entered into a competition that other clubs have been playing for nearly three decades. We still have our L-plates on. After the results on the weekend, privately, it was agreed that the knockouts need a week’s break in between round 16 and the last eight. From a logistical point of view, I must applaud that. Decision-makers have seen that it isn’t fair for a team to travel those distances with that tight turnaround. Indeed, perhaps those scorelines needed to happen for people to understand the schedule’s imperfections.

I saw Ronan O’Gara was very humble and measured with his post-match comments after the Leinster game, but I ask you, how does a two-time winner go from being the best team in the tournament to losing 40-13 and not scoring a point in the second half in Dublin? Can you go from majestic to mediocre in that space of time? No, it’s got to do with traipsing to Cape Town and back again. It comes at a cost.

Contrary to popular opinion, not for a second was I trying to undermine the competition’s integrity. I want to make that clear. I didn’t put all that work in the Pool stages just to throw it away. In my 31 years of coaching, I have never entered a competition I haven’t wanted to win.

I understand there was a lot of talk about us fielding a Bulls B-team. I get it. I understand people want to see the best players play all the time. In principle I agree with that, however, if you want to see the best players all the time, something in the game’s calendar has to give.

I should also explain that EPCR asks you to register 55 players at the start of the season, so why is it a sin to use the squad you’ve registered? Will there be a new caveat saying you can’t use your wider squad in a play-off game? As the season’s crowded schedule unfolded, I thought that was the game I could use some fresh faces, to give it a crack.

We have a lot of plates to spin in South Africa. We play in the Currie Cup and as part of the SA Rugby’s participation agreement, I’m not sure everyone appreciates that all our players need eight consecutive weeks off. If you’re involved in the URC, Champions Cup and Currie Cup, with injuries, budgetary constraints and other curveballs, you have to make decisions that aren’t always popular.

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It made me think about how professional rugby is stuck in Groundhog Day. The more you move forward, the more you have to look back. Rewind to 1995 and the birth of the game as a professional entity. When the deal to start Super Rugby was being thrashed out, it’s been well-documented that Rupert Murdoch would only sign the broadcast deal if he had the keys to the kingdom. So Francois Pienaar was going to get the signatures of the Springboks, Sean Fitzpatrick was going to get the signatures of the All Blacks and Phil Kearns the names of the Wallabies. It was the equivalent of the Kerry Packer breakaway tournament in cricket, and Murdoch’s Sky Sports eventually supercharged the move from amateur to professional.

It reminds me of what the French philosopher Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr wrote, “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”. Essentially, ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’. The reason those signatures were needed was financial. If the money men were going to put serious cash into the competition, if the sponsors were going to get on board and if the broadcasting rights were going to come in from all corners of the world, he had to have all the best talent available. Not half of it. Not teams missing. Sky wanted it all. Look at what LIV Golf is doing in golf right now. There are no half-measures when you want to dominate a sport. The modus operandi in elite sport has always been the same – secure the best players.

Currently, the dispersal of talent is fragmented. Are the best players in the world playing in the same competition? Of course not. I know South African sponsors are putting money into the Sharks, the Stormers, Bulls and Lions, but are they getting a reasonable return on investment? Not really, because you have a long list of Springboks playing their rugby outside the Rainbow Nation.

I read an interview with Simon Halliday this week, the former head of the EPCR. Wearing his England cap, he said England players should be picked even if they’re playing abroad because he wants the national team to be competitive and win a World Cup.

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My response to that is, if the 16-15 semifinal result had gone the other way – and that goes for the other two one-point games against France and New Zealand – would we be holding the South African model up as best in class? Something everyone wants to mimic and copy.

It’s doubtful.

People have to appreciate that what works in England is different to what works in South Africa. Lots of English commentators are asking for more flexibility over player selection, especially as you can be in Paris in only two hours on the train, which is closer than Pretoria (Bulls) to Cape Town (Stormers) on the plane. Feasibly English boys in Paris, Toulouse, Toulon or Bordeaux could make it back in a day. Of course, would those same commentators be advocating for picking overseas players if they went to play in New Zealand, Australia and Japan? The answer would be no. It wouldn’t even be considered.

In France, it’s basically an open secret that Fijian, Samoan, Georgian and Tongan players are under pressure from their club owners to pass on mid-year or end-of-year tours because they’re needed by their clubs. If they up sticks, they can risk losing their contracts that provide a generous lifeline to family back home.

I remember after the 2007 World Cup there was a meeting by the powers-that-be about how you fitted Argentina into the global Test calendar because they’d finished third in the tournament. Space was found for them in the Rugby Championship but what I remember vividly is a spokesperson for the Top 14 saying, ‘Look, out of the 31-man Argentina squad, we have 30 playing in our league, out of the 31-man Georgia squad, we have 29 players playing in the Top 14 and ProD2’. And so he went on. He argued that the Ligue Nationale de Rugby does more for the development of those players than any governing body does. The gist was, if you’re going to coral them into playing Test rugby, then theoretically we’re not going to contract them because we’re not getting our return on our investment. Whether we like it or not, rugby has gone professional and there is no turning back.

If you knit those arguments together, it goes back to what I’m saying about the best players playing in the best competition. I’ve said this ad nauseam, but will say it again. South African franchises would be powerhouses if we had all our overseas-based players back in situ. We would have the same unbeatable aura the Toulouses, Leinsters or Saracens of this world have had over the last decade or so. Right now, the talent Leinster are assembling is frightening. Signing Jordie Barrett on top of RG Snyman, hell, I’ve even seen rumours they’re in for Taniela Tupou – the move to the Aviva Stadium could see them sitting regally at the top of Europe for some time.

This is my next debate. After the press release about the World Club Championship, the next looming battle between Test and club rugby beckons. My message would be, please be careful not to kill the goose that lays the golden egg. In South Africa, it’s the franchises and the personnel who cultivate the stars and the local businesses that support them. It’s the same in England, if all your best players go to France why would Gallagher continue to sponsor the league, why would TNT continue to pay for TV rights? No, they wouldn’t. They want the best players playing in front of their audiences and to put bums on seats so there are full stadiums. If the day comes when local sponsors decide to overlook the team down the street and invest in franchises thousands of miles away is the day I worry about the game I love.

Loyalty plays a part here. The happiest day of my life was when I was appointed national coach of my country. As a non-Springbok, English-speaking guy, it was the pinnacle of my career. I would have given anything for that privilege and looking back, I’ve never had that feeling again, so I know how much it meant to me. When you listen to those emotive sporting quotes that say, ‘I would give anything to play for my country’, or ‘sacrifice needs to hurt’, then theoretically it means committing yourself to your own country. You can’t make millions overseas and then drop in for the weekend to play for your country. You need to give more. That’s my viewpoint.

Otherwise, I’ll tell you what’s going to happen further down the line. Rugby will go the same way as cricket. Test cricket is in its death knell and IPL (Indian Premier League) will be deemed to be the future. Marketers can give me all the gimmicks they want about fans who want to follow 50 or even 20 overs, and that five days Test cricket is passé, but it’s nonsense. Cricket created that monster and rugby will go the same way if we’re not careful. People say, that will never happen to the leading nations, but why can’t it? If a club on the other side of the world pays you the big bucks, then one day Test rugby is going to be diminished irrevocably – it’s already happening.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

@RugbyPass

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