Moneyball the Pumas way: 'If my players don't leave, we bought the wrong ones'

Jimmy Stonehouse (Gallo Images)
Jimmy Stonehouse (Gallo Images)

Jimmy Stonehouse gives a wry chuckle when you ask him about continuity.

It's a word that's nowadays used sparsely at the Mbombela Stadium in Nelspruit, the Pumas' HQ.

As ominous as it sounds, it's actually perfectly illustrative of why one of South Africa's premier underdog unions continues to carve out a relatively decent existence in a continuously shrinking rugby economy.

There's a temptation to argue that the Pumas apply the "Moneyball" principle to their recruitment strategy, based on the now famous example of the Oakland Athletics, who used statistics to remain competitive in Major League Baseball by contracting undervalued players.

However, the A's still managed to keep some key players for a reasonable period of time.

That' s not even a luxury the Pumas have. 

"If I don't have at least a few players that attract the attention of bigger unions at the end of a season, then, frankly, it means we recruited the wrong player," Stonehouse, the union's director of rugby, told Sport24.

"I know it sounds counter-intuitive, but that's how we do things. If a guy comes to play for my team, he joins because he wants to create a better opportunity for himself down the line."

The 56-year-old, a compact and nippy hooker of the former South Eastern Transvaal, cites flanker Jeandre Rudolph, who on Monday was confirmed as the Cheetahs' latest signing, as a recent example of their business model.

"He joined us because he's a player looking for an opportunity. He has too much talent not to look forward to a better future."

Rudolph, an inspirational skipper of the NWU-Pukke in the Varsity Cup, was signed in 2018 and used his new platform to play himself into the Bulls' Super Rugby squad this season and secure his move to Bloemfontein.

"When we recruit a talented player we need to be fairly certain he'll be snapped up. You can't eventually sit with a player who's stuck here for years because then you have to assume he"s a guy who won't really make it."

Pieter Burger, the Pumas' chief executive, concurred.

"Yeah, the equation is pretty simple. We've got to make sure we make the right buy," he told Sport24.

"If I provide the money for a guy that doesn't perform within a reasonable space of time then we've wasted it. We could've used it on a different player."

While Stonehouse credits team manager Marius van Rensburg - "he invariably scouts gems for us and I trust his judgement" - as an unsung hero in the recruitment process, it's undeniable that the Pumas' mastermind's pedigree plays a huge role in attracting talent.

"I think it would be silly to deny it. Jimmy provided the platform for guys like Faf de Klerk, Vince Koch and Rosko Specman to become Springboks and Blitzboks. And he continues to churn out players for Super Rugby franchises (Rudolph, Chris Smith, Le Roux Roets, Marko Janse van Rensburg)," said Burger.

"But it doesn't simply end there. We abide by the principle that you need to be able to coach what's in front of you. We look for characteristics that fit our DNA and then, well, we coach a player. It's a title Jimmy buys into. He's there to coach.

"We're always looking to refine our strategy and we're learning all the way, but we aim to get it right nine times out of 10."

Stonehouse insists his reputation shouldn't be overestimated.

"Of course I'm proud of what I've achieved. But I also keep learning. I make no secret of the fact that when you join the Pumas, you're going to be exposed to honesty and fairness," he said.

"I believe in discipline because I want a player to become a better person too. We train really hard here. It's not about being inflexible. If I can show a player he can create a better future through good, old-fashioned hard work, then we develop players who have strong minds too."

The fact that the Pumas apply such stringent criteria for themselves in terms of identifying short-term key players lays bare their ambition ... and their relative success.

"We consider ourselves a franchise. We keep reaching finals and even win the SuperSport Rugby Challenge. We remain competitive in the Currie Cup," said Stonehouse.

"To remain prominent, we need to buy players who become prominent, even if it's just for a season or two. Unless we're belatedly included in the bigger tournament in Europe that SA Rugby promised it's investigating, we unfortunately don't have much to offer promising players in the longer-term."

That doesn't mean the player roster in Mbombela is merely a revolving door.

"We have our loyal stalwarts. I'm grateful for the players who stick with us. Many of them have previously received other offers, but sometimes it's simply not worth it to uproot for an increase of R2 000 to R3 000 in your overall salary.

"As long as those guys continue to uphold high standards and contribute, I'd never let them go," said Stonehouse.

One tantalising question remains though: when is the phrase "continuity" bandied out at the Pumas?

"Ha! I think we can safely boast that our wonderful coaching staff makes up for all the comings-and-goings of the players," said Stonehouse.

"MJ Mentz was a brilliant sevens player and had an accomplished 15s career too. He's so versatile and has a good rugby brain. Corne Steenkamp was a stalwart flanker and keeps on learning. I'm privileged to have great lieutenants."

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