- Despite the economic crunch brought on by Covid-19, there's been an upsurge in junior recruitment at SA's rugby franchises.
- Even though franchises continue to build for the future, schools face a tougher road in terms of bursaries.
- A former Lions recruitment specialist fears for increased talent wastage as the pipeline dries up at club level.
One of the paradoxes of South African rugby in these corona-plagued times is that while austerity is all around us, contracting of juniors at unions is booming.
It does indeed sound wholly counter-intuitive.
Ever since SA Rugby decreed last year that franchises are prohibited from contracting more than 45 senior players - a measure designed to keep payrolls financially viable - a perception has been created that the local game is staring commercial death in the face.
If overall player rosters had to be trimmed, then surely junior players were highly vulnerable, the argument went.
But it took the Bulls - they are hardly the only ones - just about a week to prove that the converse is true.
After announcing that they'd be reuniting 21-year-old Western Province centre David Kriel with his brother, Richard, representatives of Affies' Willie Potgieter (No 8), Menlopark's Niel Beukes (utility back) and Monument's Rynard Mouton (openside flanker) had also signed their first professional contracts with the Loftus-based union.
Earlier in the week, Garsfontein's slippery flyhalf Carlton Banies and Affies scrumhalf Johan Muller also committed to the Bulls' cause.
"If there's one trend that I've noticed in the short period that Covid-19 has been with us, it's that it's not affecting junior recruitment," Ronnie Cooke, former Cheetahs and Kings centre, told Sport24.
Following an ignominious end to his playing career at the height of Eastern Province Rugby's slide into liquidation, the 36-year-old has become an accomplished agent focusing on young players.
He's currently a client manager for the Esportif agency.
"To be honest, contracting of junior players has skyrocketed again this year. It's understandable that some people believed there was an overall slowdown, because franchises were a bit more conservative the previous season as they tried to determine what the real implications of SA Rugby's new contracting model would be."
The Lions unwittingly contributed to that false perception after they were the first franchise to announce severance packages to various contracted players at the end of 2018 in preparation for the contracting changes, especially after it turned out to be several members of the age-group teams.
The selfsame Bulls, with Alan Zondagh as its then director of rugby, also reviewed a whole host of junior contracts during 2019.
Cooke believes the upsurge in junior contracting is a consequence of SA Rugby once again reconsidering its junior provincial competition model.
"Until last season, we still had an Under-19 and Under-21 tournament, which prompted unions to take stock of their junior numbers. There wasn't all that much recruitment because most teams had enough player resources already," he said.
"But there's, unofficially at the moment, reports that we might be reverting back to an Under-20 competition again from next year and that fundamentally changes the number of eligible players at certain franchises. As a result, there's been increased interest again in stars at schools level."
Bart Schoeman, former high performance manager at the Lions and now director of Sports Consult 365, though is cautious of labelling the uptick of the intake as a bonanza.
"Junior contracting will never just disappear. Every team fundamentally needs to have a base to build its future from," he told Sport24.
"It's too early to determine what effect Covid-19 has had on recruitment, but I certainly think franchises will need to make provision for the possibility that contracting models will have to change in future. There's an argument that SA Rugby's new regulations separates senior contracting from the juniors, but that's not quite true.
"In the end, both are budget items. It's conceivable that there could be changes to the junior budget in order to complete a sensitive transaction among the seniors and the other way 'round."
Schoeman, who has extensive experience in providing career guidance to rookies, also points out that schools' funding model for rugby bursaries will be severely tested.
While it's less unlikely that traditional powerhouses will run into terminal trouble regarding the continuation of their rugby programmes, reality does bite in certain instances.
For example, HTS Middelburg - who boast recent Springboks in Kwagga Smith and Andries Coetzee - last month had to take the tough decision of cancelling its bursaries.
"It would be naive not to believe that Covid-19 is going to re-align schools' policies with regards to bursaries. Bursaries are directly correlated to a team's finances. In many instances, school sponsorships come from parents' own businesses and benefactors who are alumni," said Schoeman.
"We've seen what an effect the pandemic has already had on small-to-medium enterprises in our country, so one has to brace for some school sponsorships coming to an end or being re-evaluated. In particular, schools who are reliant on one or two main streams of financing are vulnerable.
"It's the schools with proper structures in place that will weather the storm, a school that's, for example, managed to establish ten income streams for itself. If you lose four sponsors to the economic fallout, at least you still have six intact. At least you can still realistically keep your rugby programme going, even if it requires some streamlining."
The real losers will be rookies who are currently out of sight, the proverbial late bloomers who are only noticed in their third year at varsity or who gained a provincial trial on the basis of some cracking performances at club level.
In fact, Rassie Erasmus' World Cup-winning squad is a perfect example of why South African rugby desperately needs to keep all its pipelines open, however unfashionable they may be perceived.
Only 12 of the eventual 33 that went to Japan (36%) played for SA Schools, illustrating vividly that precociousness at school isn't instrumental to future success.
With club rugby clinging on for dear life as government prohibits return-to-training at lockdown level three and the Varsity Cup having ended prematurely in 2020, there's a major risk of an already substantial number of potentially promising players going down the drain increasing exponentially.
Even SA Rugby's 30-man junior academy intake simply isn't sufficient.
"This is my single biggest fear of this pandemic. I hate it when people talk about late bloomers or developers. In many instances, it's a fine player who simply didn't get noticed because he played for the "wrong" school. SA Rugby, to their credit, identify the top 100 school players every year, but the infrastructure to nurture them all simply isn't available," said Schoeman.
"We all know club rugby has been much maligned in the past 15 years or so, but some people still don't realise how valuable those structures are. If clubs continue to be left in limbo and have to close their doors, we risk some immense wastage of talent."
Cooke agrees to an extent, but also argues challenges at club level affect senior players more.
"In my experience it seems that more experienced players looking for a lifeline at social or amateur level are vulnerable. I can't deny that some of the pipeline is being cut off, but I think the juniors are a bit more insulated."