Bulls showing SA the way?

Sport24 columnist Tank Lanning (File)
Sport24 columnist Tank Lanning (File)
Imagine being one of the WP, Sharks or Lions Under-21 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 Under-21 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 Under-21, Pollard and Du Plessis are still Under-19! And the fact that the Bulls managed to get both their Under-19 and Under-21 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.

Tank is a former Western Province tighthead prop and editor of the recently launched free monthly digital rugby magazine called SCRUM

Sport24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on Sport24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Sport24.

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