There has been a lot of debate on South Africa’s policy around the selection of foreign based players of late, but Peter de Villiers may just have it spot on.
Since the game went professional money has played in a big part in rugby with none more important than the fees professional rugby players earn in what is a relatively short career.
Rugby union is a very physical sport and if we consider the length of a professional rugby player being between 7 and 10 years at best, not forgetting that this is even shortened dramatically as any rugby player at some stage will pick up an injury – sometimes career threatening, we should be able to understand the financial challenges rugby players face.
Comparatively, careers outside professional sport enjoy a 40 to 45 year period in which you can accumulate financial wealth or well being.
We need to therefore have an appreciation for the unique challenges rugby players face when we offer opinions on the player drain from the Southern Hemisphere, to the tempting propositions of the Pound or Euro in the Northern Hemisphere.
It is also a challenge rugby players and unions and clubs in the Southern Hemisphere will face for some time to come and would therefore have to plan and strategise accordingly.
Part of this challenge the Southern Hemisphere face is to correctly identify the threat and the possible reasons this came about. Following this, strategies would need to be formulated not necessarily on how to stop this, but perhaps how to enhance this for their own benefit.
Ultimately the final decision will lie with a player on what he believes is best for him and his future, what Southern Hemisphere rugby needs to focus on is structures, and incentives for these players because in a simple price-war, they will always lose.
Simply economics relies on concepts such as supply and demand, and incentives whether that be financial or other reward based schemes offering security in any career.
Northern Hemisphere rugby has a demand for the best players, and they have the money to satisfy this demand, with Southern Hemisphere rugby in the position to satisfy this demand, or in effect, act as the supply chain.
So where Northern Hemisphere rugby has the financial incentive to satisfy the need, Southern Hemisphere rugby need to identify alternative incentive based factors to not only ensure that the quality of player does not drop, but to offer players a choice in what is a very short career.
Another important fact to consider when it comes to the value of anything in economics is that scarcity or the availability of any product or resource has a direct bearing on the perceived value of that item or commodity.
I believe the South should not concern themselves to compete directly with the North, but rather identify those scarce commodities to ensure the value (demand) to not simply go North does not diminish because if it does, it will directly affect the local supply and the value (strength) of that supply.
The economics game therefore and the challenge to Southern Hemisphere countries is not to play a global economics game but focus on the local economical factors not to stop the drain (you will never be able to put a complete stop to it in professional rugby), but to ensure the quality of the products (players) maintains a certain standard.
This essentially means that we should not open our borders, and adopt a free-trade model when it comes to sharing our resources, but almost adopt a nationalisation approach when it comes to protecting our assets, and the value of our assets.
Currently Southern Hemisphere players are in high demand for the very simple reason that Southern Hemisphere rugby and its teams have dominated world rugby for the most part since rugby union turned professional.
But there is also a reason players from the South enjoy the superiority and have the quality they currently have, and that is thanks to the structures of rugby in these countries which ensures a high quality product being developed and delivered onto the world stage.
In the past there was little to threaten these structures but with professional rugby, these structures are under direct threat and the challenge will be for countries to protect that.
So how do Southern Hemisphere countries create incentives for players locally to ensure protection of our resources and structures?
Well money will always be important, and although we should not try and align ourselves to try and compete directly with the North, we should ensure that our professional players enjoys financial security and quality of life or living environments.
For this revenue streams need to be constant and high quality products need to be designed and delivered to the viewing audience and investors and sponsors. This starts with local rugby in each country which is usually left to each country’s own devices but could also extent so that international, or inter-continental competition between these countries aid local rugby structures and competitions.
Two steps in the recent past have already reached out to countries like Australia and Argentina to assist with this being the extended Super 15 (starting in 2011) which gives Australian rugby a sustainable domestic-based competition or structure they never had before thanks to the format in which the new Super 15 will be played.
Argentina of course have been included in the Tri-Nations which will become the Four Nations in the near future.
The challenge for all these countries individually, and collectively will be to ensure a premier product to be delivered so there revenue streams from these competitions can be re-invested in local structures and players.
With revenue largely taken care of each country individually however will need to also focus on a very important aspect of the game locally as an incentive to compete with the superior monetary incentives the North offers, and that can only be done if some exclusivity or a scarcity is created in locally.
That scarcity or exclusivity has to be the incentive to receive national colours and caps for that country.
IRB protocols already helps in this respect with regards to their rules on player eligibility for countries other than the ones they were born in, but the Southern Hemisphere needs to amplify this need and use this very important tool they have.
Not only will this demand properly managed structures to be in place to ensure that you at least secure or rather, deny other countries these resources or players, but balance it with making it exclusive and guarding against making it cheap, or easy to achieve this.
This will have to also mean that even though a player is good enough to receive national colours, he will have to conform to certain criteria to be eligible to be selected.
The scarcity, or exclusivity we place on receiving national colours or caps will always add to the perceived value of that incentive, even if not purely financial. But since decisions made by players will be about weighing up the value of offers on the table we cannot afford to diminish or devalue the Springbok, All Black or Wallaby jersey in any way – and allowing an open border policy on selection of national players we will destroy the value of the product.
The snow-ball effect this will have on local rugby eventually is also plain to see. Simply consider the value of Currie Cup rugby games in the first half of the competition, to that of the second half where all the national players are involved. It is a risk we cannot afford to take.
In South Africa there are 150 premier or level A professional players (Super rugby) every single year. In total, the number of all professionally paid players in rugby in South Africa can go up to 400, and if IRB figures are to be believed South Africa has close to ½ million registered rugby players. If we devalue or lose one of the few, and most important factors we have in rugby as stated above, the 7 to 15 percent of top, or currently capped Springbok players currently playing in Europe will skyrocket to 60 percent and more, having a devastating effect on Southern Hemisphere rugby.
We have to realise that the player drain to Europe serves no-one but the individual himself, and the European clubs where no re-investment in local structures will ever take place, or if any (players returning) very little.
South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and to a lesser extent Argentina have to look after their own individually and collectively and in my opinion, take an even tougher stance on the criteria on selecting overseas based players.
As a recent report proved however where All Black coach Graham Henry wanted to pick a player as a debutant for the All Blacks in the incoming tours this month only to find out he has signed with an overseas based club leaving the player disappointed, proper management of this process is also necessary.
In future, this might also mean that Southern Hemisphere countries create mutually beneficial programs with Northern Hemisphere clubs on behalf of their players with properly managed exchange programs.
Proper management, forward thinking, and protecting our structures is what is needed in Southern Hemisphere rugby, and for that we need to realise and protect the strength of our respective brands.Tweet