Peter Hassard, President of the KwaZulu-Natal Rugby Union (the amateur arm of the Sharks), talks to Rugby365 about the pitfalls of professional rugby, WP buying players, Player agents, the possible Springbok exodus, and whether or not the Sharks will have to leave the Absa Stadium.
In only its second decade of professionalism, rugby is still a relative newcomer to the practice of professional sport. Where once the game was played at the top level for pride alone, there are now salaries, contracts and clauses. Each club or union has to deal with the balance of having top stars drawing in the crowds, young players being given the chance to develop, and the players’ international ‘responsibilities’.
Hassard explains the structure of rugby in KwaZulu-Natal.
“In our union we have the professional division which is the Sharks Pty Ltd, and we have the KwaZulu-Natal Rugby Union, who handle all the amateur rugby; clubs, schools and so on. We also used to handle the Under-19s and Under-21s up to 2007, but from 2008 they became professional teams too. So we handle the referees, coaching, development, transformation, and all the clubs in KwaZulu-Natal, and the Sharks professional arm handles the 4 professional teams; The Sharks, the Sharks XV who play in the Vodacom Cup, the Under-21s and the Under-19s.”
Hassard says that the strength of the amateur game is vital to the professional sides, and the KZNRU take serious steps to ensure that the depth of rugby in KwaZulu-Natal is strong throughout the province.
“We as a union are pumping millions into club rugby every year, and we have signed a major sponsor for club rugby in KwaZulu-Natal. We have shown growth in numbers too. If you go back to the beginning of 2008, and compared it to the beginning of 2009, the numbers of players in all clubs have increased. I put it down to the Sharks winning the Currie Cup last year. There was more interest shown across the board.”
The development of previously disadvantaged players is equally as important to the growth of the game in South Africa, and Hassard’s team is making sure that everything that can be done is carried out so that opportunities are offered to those who may not have had them before.
“We have now got 21 black clubs playing rugby here, and on the books we have about 25,000 children of colour between Under-13 and Under-17 playing rugby in KwaZulu-Natal. We have an inter-sub union club tournament for Under-13s, Under-15s and Under-17s, and the top 30 players from each age group are taken out and given specialised training. You find all those top players are picked up by the schools in the area and given bursaries, so they also get a good education which is invaluable.”
Speaking about the need to have a stream of talent coming through the system, Hassard says that the key to the balance lies in signing the players young, so that they have experience of the club’s culture when they turn out for the senior teams.
“We signed 12 of the top provincial schools players this year, their contracts start on the 1st of January 2010. We have continuity throughout the system. They go from under 19 to under 21 to Vodacom Cup to the Sharks, so we have a continuous stream of players going through.”
Hassard says that it in their current spending, Western Province might be detracting from the talent that would normally be coming through their youth system.
“What’s happening is the pool of talent coming through in Western Province is seeing that they aren’t getting a chance to run on the field with the Stormers or Province sides, so what they are doing is moving to other unions such as the Sharks and the Bulls.”
In addition, the act of buying players can also be problematic, with Jaque Fourie’s current legal battle highlighting the issues. Hassard says that there should be more communication between the three parties.
“Jaque Fourie has signed a contract until the end of 2010 with the Lions, and according to the contract, he can’t severe his ties. I don’t see the point of having a chap there who doesn’t want to play, but the Lions and Stormers should be talking to each other. The Lions should tell the Stormers that if they want the player, pay the transfer fee and they can have him. The Stormers seem to have endless money at the moment; they are buying players left, right and centre.”
But Hassard says that it is not just the loss of talent that has made the Lions fight so hard to keep Fourie. He mentions that there is a dangerous outcome at stake where players will not be forced to honour contracts.
“There are rules and regulations. If you relax the rules that are in place in any sporting body people will just walk away from contracts. When Bakkies wanted to leave the Bulls last year he got advocates involved to argue his case, but he lost because he had signed a contract saying he would stay in Pretoria until the end of 2010.”
But, according to Hassard, it is not just the players who are to blame.
“Their agents are the biggest culprits. The agents will phone us and say ‘we have a player that wants to move to the Sharks’, so you sit around the table with the agent and talk numbers. Then the agent goes back to the player’s union and say ‘this is what the Sharks offered us, are you prepared to match it?’ which is rubbish, we hadn’t made an offer, we just talked. There is a lot of dirty laundry involved.”
It is not just domestic transfers that are cause for worry. As speculation of a Springbok exodus to Europe mounts, Hassard says that there is little that the South African unions can do to keep up with the European salaries.
“The problem, from a South African perspective, is the strength of the Euro and the Pound. The clubs in Europe are pulling our top players because of their currency. What it is doing, it is pushing our contract fees up, so it’s costing us a hell of a lot of money to keep a professional team on the park. The Springboks want to make as much money out of the game as possible, but I don’t blame them, they are in business, let them earn as much as they can while they can. A rugby player’s career can end tomorrow.”
Hassard says this is not a new concept, and that it is not just the high profile players that get lured to Europe.
“Here in Durban we lose about 30 to 40 players a year out of club rugby to go play club rugby in Britain. I don’t blame them, they get ZAR150 match fee over here, and they get £150 over there. So they go over there, and find themselves a job, have a ball for two or three years playing some good rugby, and they come back to South Africa again. And a lot of them come back and start playing for their original clubs.”
In addition, the former Natal Country Districts player believes that there won’t be the full scale exodus that everyone has been talking about.
“There is a limit to everything in life. They might take a few key players, but they can’t take them all. The clubs in Europe at the moment are cash-strapped – barring the French; I don’t know where the French are getting all their money from. When the British and Irish Lions were over here, I had dinner with the Presidents of the Home Unions, and they were saying that the clubs there are struggling; their sponsors are feeling the recession. Once the recession is finished, maybe then the cash will come back and they will start buying more players.”
Though South African rugby has lost a few international stars, there has also been interest in their domestic competition from foreigners in the form of Chris Jack, Todd Clever and Juan Martin Hernandez. Luckily for South Africa, the Currie Cup and the Super 14 remain big draw cards for foreign players wishing to test themselves against the premier players of world rugby, and because of that interest, the Sharks are delighted to have the talent of Argentinean Hernandez at their disposal.
“We were struggling to find a flyhalf after Butch James left. We started looking around, and Juan Martin kindly accepted our offer. What a charming young man, very nice chap. Juan Martin has played Heineken Cup rugby, International rugby, World Cup rugby and his comment the other day was that out of all of them, Currie Cup rugby is the hardest. He is really looking forward to playing Super 14 next year.”
Hassard says that those international stars are vital in helping blood the younger generation of players while the Springboks are away on duty.
“In the Currie Cup, out of 14 pool matches, the Springboks only play three. If we make the final they play five out of 15, so they play a third of the matches – and unfortunately the Sharks supply 12 Springboks.”
Though, Hassard admits, the Sharks are fortunate to have enough depth in talent to cope while the big names are away.
“Even without our 12 Springboks, our youngsters took us right through to the top of the log. Those young chaps are dedicated. There are no airs and graces about them, and there are no contract wars with them – they are playing rugby because they want to play rugby.”
Each Springbok who plays for the Sharks is vital to their challenge for the Currie Cup trophy, but Hassard says there is no question about who makes the biggest impact on his return.
“John Smit is an absolute gentleman and an unbelievable man. He is loyal to his province. He went to France, and the minute he wasn’t happy he phoned us immediately to ask if he could come back to the Sharks. He makes a massive difference to the side. They (the rugby community) rate him as the best captain in the world, and I can see it. Whenever he plays for the Sharks they play a different standard of rugby.”
With so much good happening on the field for the Sharks it is unfortunate that there are issues off it, with the of possibility of having to move stadiums hanging over the Durban outfit. Though, Hassard believes, the decision is best left to those who use the stadium the most.
“We have 32,000 permanent members – supporters who have season tickets. The only fair thing to do in that situation was to ask the members whether or not they wanted to move to the new stadium, and the answer from them was ‘no’. They want to stay because it’s their home; they know they have the fields around the stadium where they can have their braais after the game. They are happy with their season tickets and they are happy with their boxes.”
While he hopes that there is an amiable resolution to the issue, Hassard says that legally speaking the Sharks cannot be forced to change homes.
“Our legal department has told us that our contract with the corporation allowing us to stay at the ABSA Stadium until 2056 is all in line, and we cannot be forced out of the stadium.”
As those in power decide the future of the brand, this weekend the Sharks team will be looking to seal a spot in this year’s Currie Cup final. With such a strong squad they will be difficult to dismantle, but regardless of the result, those behind the scenes will be working to ensure that rugby in the province continues to improve in the future.Tweet