There has been much argument and commentary about what experienced and seasoned players expect from their contracts. A Rugby season is generally taxing on the top tier players, who have to play four months of top-class club Rugby with a couple of bye weeks; then the elite push themselves further in their national colours for about a month in June, and then another three months moving into August, September and November. There isn’t much time off taking into account the amount of training and prep work that is done.
The top players in the Southern Hemisphere aren’t paid as much as their Northern counterparts, so the urge to seek better pay with a possible shorter season is tempting. Some players take this opportunity, even if it means they will never be considered for national selection while contracted to foreign clubs.
Talk of giving players a sabbatical isn’t new and has been around for about 20 years. Rugby is, and has been for a long time, a professional sport and the responsibilities and collateral consequences of this era have to be dealt with in a creative manner.
Some national bodies do not allow players on foreign contracts to be considered for Test call-ups. The three most prominent countries that have this policy are New Zealand, Australia and England. South Africa don’t have this policy in place, which I will cover later.
The policy of ‘non-selection’ can cause massive headaches for countries that back it, as there are the possible problmes of player exodus, depth in the squad and public pressure. England was under immense pressure from former players, commentators and the public to select European Player of the Year Steffon Armitage. The massive unit who hangs on the side of the scrum is an in-form player, and is a difficult player to stop. He is 106kg and 175cm, short in stature, but possessing immense power for each kilogram that he carries. Armitage has been a pivotal figure in Toulon’s victories and championship bid, and deserves his accolades; but England’s policy has seen him snubbed and he rests back in Europe while his countrymen play New Zealand abroad.
England isn’t the only country to snub their talent – Australia does the same. The circumstances may differ, but there are talented players plying their trade in Europe while the Wallabies struggle to create depth. There isn’t a pretty story behind Matt Giteuu leaving Australia, but he has been in form lately and was called into the World XV side by Mallett, proving that he still has the gift. But Australia won’t give him a second look due to the fact that he isn’t onshore. Digby Ioane was a loss that Australia couldn’t afford, but the money backers in Europe tempted him over and he is lost to the Wallaby ranks for now.
New Zealand is the leader in such a policy, with a central contracting system in place that covers the elite players in the Super Rugby squads and the All Blacks’ unit. If a player doesn’t have a contract with a franchise side, they will not be considered for All Blacks selection. There was a little bit of a worry that Ma’a Nonu wouldn’t be an All Black, as no franchise had signed him at the beginning of 2014, but the Blues stepped up and he was able to remain in the contract system. New Zealand are also pioneering in the sabbatical arena, allowing experienced players to take time off and not play in the Super Rugby competition for six months. This sabbatical isn’t a free pass to play in another country; players are expected to ‘take a holiday’. Richie McCaw took this opportunity after the 2011 World Cup and Dan Carter is just coming off his sabbatical this year. Other players are set to follow this trend.
What this type of break means is that the players can leave the game for an extended period and return to the national setup, depending on form. This type of system isn’t prevalent in other club or national setups, so New Zealand is a trailblazer in this approach. It is a creative effort to keep top players in New Zealand and keep the national competitions and teams strong.
So when Israel Folau and company brought up the idea of sabbaticals, Bill Pulver, the ARU chief, categorically denied this request. He is right in fearing that these players may take their leave and play in another country on a short-term contract, but he is fighting against the oncoming tide. A clause needs to be put into elite players’ contracts that allow them to take a break, but not to play for another club. The elite players will have to match certain criteria and abide strictly by the rules of an agreed sabbatical. This should add some leverage to keeping players in their respective Union’s talent pools.
If Australia and other nations intend on keeping their top players in the country, a very creative and fair agreement needs to be implemented.
South Africa bucks the trend of the other heavyweights, allowing foreign-based players to be selected, which is the norm in international sports. Football is the big daddy in free-for-all selection, with players from different countries based all over the globe. I don’t expect Rugby to ever be as big as football, but the model works to a degree. Springboks coach Heyneke Meyer has insisted that if he was to select a foreign-based player, they have to be excellent in their role and there must not be an equal or better player based locally. I am not sure how much of that philosophy he backs himself, but it has helped him out in the recent Tests against Wales.
With a fair amount of local talent injured, he was able to call upon international backups from Europe and Japan. At least six players in the Springboks are based in other countries, but they are superstars and get paid more than they will ever get paid if they had remained in their homeland. The weak South African currency adds to the temptation to go offshore and earn much more; remaining in South Africa is becoming increasingly difficult for top tier players.
The fact that Meyer has selected foreign-based players hasn’t hurt South Africa at all; in fact, it may have increased the Springboks’ chemistry. Players are able to bring new ideas to the coach and team, and are able to share experiences which add another dimension to the team. Fourie Du Preez has improved from his time in Japan due to the less physical competition and shorter season. He is able to recover and rest more. Bakkies Botha has had a tough season for Toulon, but he hasn’t lost his step and is bigger and badder than he was in his prime. With the void left by players leaving, local talent can develop quickly, creating depth in the local teams and resulting in possible national duties.
Selection of foreign-based players isn’t such a bad thing, but the heads of the respective Unions fear that a mass exodus could cripple the local competitions. They are right in this regard. Australia cannot afford to lose too many marquee players from Rugby, which already struggles against the AFL and NRL. New Zealand is ahead of the curve, attempting to cut the problem off at the source by introducing a central contract system and creative means to keep players in the country.
There are two very good arguments regarding these types of policies, each with their own merits, but if Unions don’t offer good incentives to fight against the big cash, they will lose marquee players to the ranks of Europe or Japan and will only see them when the World Cup comes around every four years.
If Australia were to lose big names like Folau, Nick Cummins or even Michael Hooper, the ARU will only have itself to blame for not trying proactive measures to keep them in the local set-up.
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